“The Lord of The Rings” trilogy won an astounding 17 Oscars. It’s one of the top best-selling book series ever written. It forced the genre of fantasy to be taken seriously in Hollywood.
Why? It’s one of the most powerful tales of spiritual enlightenment ever told. See, the ring signifies addictions that have to be let go of, and the journey to the West … all right, never mind about all that.
“The Hobbit” is the prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” (“LOTR”). It used to be that people read “The Hobbit,” and then eventually got around to the darker “LOTR” series. Now, director Peter Jackson has possibly caused “The Hobbit” to forever be the side dish to the main course.
However, this is just the first installment. There will be two more. We’ll have to reserve judgment for now on whether the full story adds up to a lesser product.
So, the tale goes like this: Back in the days of yore, the thuggish dragon Smaug descended on the dwarf lords in their halls of stone, smashed and routed them, pulled all their gold trinkets into a vast dwarf-loot pile, and jumped in it. And gloated for far too long.
This was a beyond-horrible situation for the dwarves, as dwarves are very, very, very attached to their stuff. As we meet them, they’re fixing to go back and snatch at least a little bit of it. But they need a professional burglar.
They enlist Gandalf the Grey, a small-time wizard, to recruit the burglar. He picks Bilbo Baggins, a rich, complacent, fastidious, high-society hobbit, completely unsuited to the task. Gandalf is betting that Bilbo has some hidden inner grit.
And so the 13 dwarves, hobbit, and wizard set off over hill and dale to reclaim dwarfish gold. They encounter trolls, some elves, rock giants, many goblins, wolves, and Gollum.
The “LOTR” films have become so iconic, and the production so undeniably definitive, that there’s often the sense in “The Hobbit” that it’s slightly anticlimactic to hear these grand characters (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman) saying new sentences in new settings.
It suffers slightly from a sort of greatest-hits, medley-like quality. It feels like there’s some fan-base pandering going on. “Oh look, they brought Frodo back, and there’s Galadriel again, and oh yay! It’s Gollum!”
Speaking of Gollum, his smallish role almost steals the entire movie.
The main challenge is that “LOTR,” like all things having to do with enlightenment, is solemn. It was written for adults. “The Hobbit” is a children’s book and is much lighter, humorous, and whimsical in tone. How to sync them up stylistically, retain the serious tone of the former, while being true to the essence of the latter? When viewed with this in mind, Jackson does a bang-up job.
Both films feature magical things. “LOTR” had very little that rankled in terms of challenging the believability factor. Even something as fantastical as Treebeard (a walking, talking tree, basically), didn’t stand out as blatantly impossible.
In “The Hobbit,” the wizard Radagast’s bunny-drawn earth-sled that tears around like a Formula 1 racecar, however, is pushing it. Perhaps it’s because Radagast is portrayed as a buffoon. He was cooler in the book.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis
Running time: 2 hours, 49 minutes
In the same vein, “Hobbit” scholars will miss various bits of magic that got left out. Perhaps they might think things like, “Where’s the troll’s talking wallet that rats Bilbo out to its owner when Bilbo pickpockets it?”
The “LOTR” books were written in such exquisite detail that all the imagery came ready-made, appearing on-screen exactly as we’d all seen it in our mind’s eye. The breezier “Hobbit” leaves more room for interpretation, and some of the back-story scenes somehow slightly miss the mark. The bona fide “Hobbit” scenes, however, are consistent bull’s-eyes, and the warrior-like dwarves are perfect.
But ultimately, as Jackson says in the press notes, what it boils down to is the fact that “The Hobbit” is simply a “cracking great yarn.” Now, the new 3-D may cause a bit of motion sickness for the sensitive on the wilder swooping camera shots, and the effect of the new 48-frames-per-second technology is negligible. But for sheer entertainment value, it’s quite a ride.