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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

On the road again in Middle-Earth

The Hobbit

In JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels there is only one ring that counts. As it is written: “One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged this one ruling ring, but we don’t have to go into that since this ring is only tangential in the first installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel, The Hobbit. Jackson, of course, is responsible for the three-part movie version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was completed nine years ago.

There may only be one ring, but there will be a lot of movie based on these stories by the time the last part of this new series is released in two years. When compared to the Harry Potter movies (eight of them), six isn’t an inordinate number, but the question before us is whether the material can sustain another eight hours of viewing and listening. The answer at this juncture is inconclusive.

The three Lord of the Rings movies are likely to remain a collective landmark in epic fantasy filmmaking for a long time. The virtual collaboration between moviemakers and the late novelist is easily one of the most surprisingly fruitful in film history. The Hobbit is another matter. This book is only a third of the length of each of the three Lord of the Rings novels. Rather than having to trim and compress it, Jackson and company have had to expand on its stories and characters, a task virtually unheard of in movie adaptations. Incidents only fleetingly referred to by Tolkien have become big set-action sequences in the movie, and characters from the Lord of the Rings books have been pulled into it, with varying degrees of effectiveness (Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, for example). Incidents and story lines from the more than 100 pages of appendices to the last volume of the Lord of the Rings novels have been inserted into the narrative. (The Return of the King may be the only notable English-language novel with both appendices and an index.) The filmmakers justify all this elaboration and interpolation as clarification of Tolkien’s theme and cinematic imperative, but one may wonder if they found the novel too slim and the prospects for commercial exploitation too tempting.

As it is, the results are uneven. The Hobbit was a sort of unintended prequel for Tolkien. The protagonist-hero isn’t the Lord of the Rings’s Frodo, but his Uncle Bilbo (Martin Freeman in a wonderfully varied and vigorous but nuanced performance). And, in place of the Fellowship of the Ring, there’s Bilbo’s affiliation with 13 dwarfs seeking to reconquer their home kingdom from a terrifying dragon. Their mentor, guide, and sometime protector is the wizard Gandolf (Ian McKellen). By this movie’s end, after nearly three hours, they’re all within sight of this geographic goal.

Jackson’s picture is faster-paced and more emphatically punctuated than his previous Tolkien adaptations. It can also seem oddly plodding and repetitious. The digitally augmented action passages, the (literally) cliff-hanging crises, occasionally lend The Hobbit a bit of the flavor of old Saturday afternoon serials. The lack of seriousness is amplified by the often jokey tone of the script and, along with anachronistic lapses—a reference to golf, for instance—make this one much more comic than Jackson’s first go at the Tolkien oeuvre. The Hobbit is certainly impressively achieved entertainment, but so far, it has little of the sense of a world whose existence is in jeopardy from unspeakable evil found in both Jackson’s and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings works.

The movie is undeniable fun, and more appropriate for youngsters above a very tender age, and it may become a more considerable accomplishment in the next two installments. Tolkien’s millions of devotees must be hoping for this.

The Hobbit is being touted as the first film to be made in an innovative HFR 3-D, a much faster-speed format of 48 frames per second, said to achieve much sharper image resolution. But only one area theater is showing this version, and the preview copy was projected the old 24-frames-per-second format.

Watch the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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