I have to say, it’s nice to be back in Middle Earth. While The Lord of the Rings trilogy definitely left me craving more of Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s magical realm, I was worried that The Hobbit would be an epic letdown. Then there was all the talk about how they were going to turn a thin, little novel into a full-on trilogy (that’s still going to happen, but I am totally on board); and how Jackson’s serious misstep of presenting the film in too-sharp 48 frames per second made the movie look distractingly artificial and stagey (that’s still hotly debated. I didn’t see the high framerate version, but I intend to). On top of that, I recently read The Hobbit for the first time through and found it to be a flimsy little tale that I didn’t think I would enjoy as a movie. Despite all that hype and baggage, once my eyes passed through the familiar circular doorways of the Baggins’ home at Bag End, I was transported back to such a pleasant and fun experience that none of that other chatter seemed important. We were going to go on an adventure with wizards, orcs, goblins, hobbits, elves, and dwarves again!
The story this time features Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo, (with Ian Holm as the older Bilbo, and Martin Freeman as the younger Bilbo through most of the movie) on his first adventure with Gandalf (played again by Ian McKellan) and a group of 13 dwarves. Led by the exiled king of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield (best name ever, no?), they seek to reclaim their kingdom (which is a vast city within a mountain) from an evil dragon named Smaug (but we don’t deal with Smaug until later in the story). It’s not yet clear why they need to bring Bilbo along, but it’s Gandalf’s idea (and you really don’t want to get on his bad side). Bilbo is delightfully hesitant and polite when dragged along on this adventure that sees them facing all kinds of nasty creatures and enemies on the way, including a memorable first meeting between him and Gollum (again masterfully acted by Andy Serkis).
One of the unexpected things that I enjoyed about this movie was how much it played as a prequel to the Rings trilogy. Jackson was able to incorporate a scene between Frodo (a cameo by Elijah Wood) and Bilbo discussing preparations for the party which takes place at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. There are also a few scenes where Gandalf, Elrond (cameo by Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (cameo by Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (cameo by Christopher Lee) discuss signs of Sauron’s possible return. I love the feeling of knowing more about the story than the characters do (That’s the secret joy of the prequel!). Of course, the cherry on top is the milestone scene between Bilbo and Gollum where they not only meet each other and Gollum learns about “hobbitses” but this is when Bilbo gets his hands on “the precious” One Ring that leads to the events of other trilogy. I cannot tell you how much geeky fanboy joy I got from seeing all those connections get made on screen. I almost forgot about Oakenshield and his petty little quest. Almost.
While I was reading the book, I really didn’t care about these dwarves reclaiming their lost city, but Jackson did an amazing job of making me care. The movie wisely presents flashback scenes telling the history of the dwarves and what led to Smaug’s taking of their kingdom. Also, Thorin was more impressive as an actual character on screen (played by Richard Armitage). Jackson was able to give him some character development and growth even within the events of this first movie. Another issue I had with this story originally was that the dwarves just seemed like a bunch of rowdy oafs (which is one of my least favourite types of characters). When they first arrived at Bilbo’s place, they imposed themselves upon his hospitality, impolitely taking from his pantry. However, as the movie goes on, you get to know a few of them and they take on a more likeable quality that makes you root for them on their quest. There’s even a few heroic dwarves (most notably Legolas-stand-in Killi, played with good looks and a flashing bow by Aidan Turner; and the Bilbo’s unlikely buddy Bofur, played by James Nesbitt).
Martin Freeman makes an excellent Bilbo. He possesses a kind of polite, “I don’t mean to bother you but…” kind of expression, even when going through some pretty outrageous things. He’s wonderfully understated and matter-of-fact, which served him well in previous roles such as Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick Watson on BBC’s Sherlock; Tim (the Jim-equivalent) on the British original version of The Office; and Arthur Dent in the feature film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. McKellan is as impressive as ever reprising Gandalf. In this movie the stakes are not as high, so there’s more breathing room for a little humour, but he also gets to do a few more of those scenes where he shouts at a group of hobbits and dwarves to “Run!”. Serkis continues to amaze as the voice (and movement) of Gollum. He’s only really in a couple of scenes, but that split-personality comes through so well, along with his odd speech and his quick-change from pitiable to menacing. The animation of Gollum also seems to have improved with age. Similarly there are a couple of characters who have a lot of lines but are represented completely by CGI. The Goblin King and the Orc nemesis to Thorin are both impressively animated, especially the Goblin King. Despite a hideous goiter that flapped around his chin, I was transfixed by how lively his facial expressions and dialogue were.
Though I expected nothing less, I was still impressed by the visuals in this movie. The camera soaring over imaginary locations like the tranquil, elvish, mountainside city of Rivendell; or the criss-crossing boardwalks throughout the underground dwelling of the goblins; or the impressive mountains (which actually come to life) of Middle Earth; and even the lush green hills of Hobbiton were vivid and breath-taking. I wish that I could have watched the high frame rate version of this movie if only to see its amazing scenery in clear detail. It may have taken a while for Jackson to get this movie to the theatres the way he wanted, but I think this has been well worth the wait. It’s wonderful to be enjoying another epic quest story in a familiar world. I wish that this story didn’t have to be split into three parts (but only because I don’t want to have to wait for part two). 5 out of 5