As far as I can remember, The Hobbit was the first big, long book that my father ever read to me. It was this big coffee table edition with plenty of illustrations from that weird animated version of the story from the 70s (though I did not discover that movie actually existed until many years later). I felt like he was passing something down to me, something important. Many years later, I absolutely loved Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. I think my feelings about them aren’t that different from what middle-aged geeks seem to be talking about when they talk about the original Star Wars films. It doesn’t matter how long they are, I can just watch them over and over. I use random lines out of context for no reason. If my wife asks me if I’d like some mashed potatoes, I tell her, “I cannot deny I have greatly desired this.” Our engagement ring has always been referred to as “the precious.” And the first film of the new Hobbit series from Peter Jackson opened the same weekend as my birthday. Suffice to say that I had the date marked on my calendar many months in advance.
I wasn’t let down at all. In fact, I had a spectacular time and really want to see the thing again as soon as possible. One thing I think might throw someone initially is that The Hobbit quite simply isn’t The Lord of the Rings. It’s a very different story with very different goals and a very different tone. The stakes are lower and the tone is more “let’s have an adventure” than “small people struggling against the end of the world.” This is a story with a scene near the beginning where 13 comically-bearded dwarves do the dishes while singing a song (“Is this a musical?” asked the clueless guy in the seat behind me). Jackson didn’t make that up. When I was a kid, I LOVED that scene. I think I’m going to end up thinking about these movies the same way I think about Angel in relation to my favorite TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They’re not quite the same thing, but if you’ve already watched all of the original several times, it’s nice to have something different but from the same ballpark to change things up.
For those who weren’t bequeathed the great Tolkien cultural heritage by their forebears, The Hobbit tells the story of a younger, very reluctant Bilbo Baggins (played here by Martin Freeman) who is drafted by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to go on an adventure with 13 dwarves to reclaim their home kingdom from the evil dragon Smaug, though this movie takes us only a third of the way there. Only a handful of these dwarves become real characters, but it’s more than enough. Their noble leader, the closest thing the piece has to a traditional hero, is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). A young, hot dwarf named Kili (Aidan Turner) shoots a lot of things with his bow and arrow, just sort of looks like he forgot to shave instead of having a beard, and is obviously supposed to be the Legolas of this movie. Several other cast members from the original films return for cameos and more, including Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, and, best of all, Andy Serkis.
There are also several new additions that Jackson has plucked from obscure corners of Tolkien in order to pad things out to three films, most obviously Sylvester McCoy (the 7th Doctor) as a new wizard, Radagast the Brown. When my parents got a wizard lawn ornament when I was younger, I named it Radagast, thinking it was so incredibly obscure no one would ever get it. This movie proved me wrong. Mostly, Jackson “actioned” things up a bit. Things that are only mentioned briefly in the story are now witnessed in full flashback, including some fairly epic battles. I think some purists might find things to object to, but for the most part I found that Jackson’s additions did not feel out of place.
The movie starts very slowly, as the book did. It needs a little space, I think, to set up three films, and Tolkien drew out the pastoralism as much as he could in case. But don’t worry, the film will pick up from an action standpoint, and how! The best action bits of this film easily stand with anything from the original trilogy. It’s the tone that’s different, but it’s all in the same style, down to the Howard Shore score. During the film’s biggest set-piece, set in a multi-level goblin kingdom inside a mountain, I found myself thinking of the best action sequences I’ve seen in modern video games. Normally when you compare a movie to a video game it’s an insult, but let’s be honest, video games do action better, and Jackson seems to have learned from them.
Yes, this movie is super long (though not as long as any of the LOTR trilogy at 169 minutes), and it comes to more of a thematic end point than a story one. I’m honestly not sure what we’re going to do in the second movie, since Jackson gets at least halfway through the book in this movie. But I do know that I’m glad that I have these movies, that someday I can read The Hobbit to my son (or possibly my dog) and then years later I can show them this movie, remastered at seventy four frames per second for greater definition when holographically projected, and that is the way the world should be.