‘I’ ON CULTURE
The Hobbit is a triumph of storytelling and technology. It is more accessible, particularly for those who do not regularly inhabit Middle-earth, than The Lord of the Rings. Originally written as a children’s story, becoming a form of introduction to the world, instead of concentrating on the overarching struggle between good and evil, it examines its effect on one hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. As a result, it becomes an adventure story filled with dwarves, elves, orcs, trolls, goblins, wizards and flying birds. And, one hobbit. Well, the young Frodo (Elijah Wood, one of several veterans of the earlier trilogy to make cameo appearances) does show up briefly in the beginning, talking to the elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm), but aside from that, there is only one hobbit.
Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is a contented hobbit, enjoying life with his books and his stores of food in his comfortable lair. When Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) tells him he will soon be on an adventure, he refuses. Within a short period of time, his home is overrun by dwarves, all intent on retaking their old home, Erebor, now called the “lonely mountain.” He is horrified when Gandalf suggests he join the dwarves, says he won’t, but the next day joins up. And that is how the journey begins. The dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) do not fully accept him as they battle their way toward the castle, now held by the Dragon Smaug. The movie becomes a chase film as the 13 dwarves and one hobbit, as well as Gandalf, wind up being pursued by enemies. Finally, after Bilbo behaves heroically, he is accepted.
Since this is the first film of a planned trilogy and, comparing this to the first of the LOTR films, it is actually better. The issues are far simpler, and there have been incredible advances in computer-generated special effects. Gollum (portrayed through computer-generated imaging by the great Andy Serkis who did the part in the early films) is far more expressive than ever before and plays a far more subtle role. The interplay between Bilbo and Gollum is superb, providing far more backstory on Gollum than we have seen before. We finally even see Bilbo getting a certain golden ring. But we also see the elves Elrond and Galadriel (Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett) as well as Saruman (Christopher Lee) arguing over the future of Middle-earth, which helps determine a lot of the main plot line. There are several chase and battle scenes with orcs and wargs (all CGI images) as well as goblins.
It is difficult to assess the acting of the troupe as a whole. Freeman is superb as Bilbo. He is querulous, imbued like all hobbits with a love of home, and does not feel he is a hero. But he carries off the transformation into hero, at first simply stalling for time better than the ferocious dwarfs when that is needed and eventually actually fighting. His is the central role, and he does it extraordinarily well. I mentioned Serkis earlier. His kind of acting deserves some form of recognition by the Academy Awards; his work in these films as well as Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserves an award. Most of the dwarves are fitted with prosthetics on their faces, making true expression difficult, although Armitage, most surly, does a great job.
The early trilogy was sharply criticized for cutting out large sections of the books. That is not true of this film. The new series is based, naturally, on the book of the same name, and includes information that Tolkien inserted into footnotes and appendices. Very little is left out; actually, there are additions that make the story far more comprehensible.
That helps understanding the story and the issues. The film becomes a tale of great adventure. Yes, the moral issues that were so important to Tolkien are still there. Gandalf, when asked why he suggested the hobbit join them, argues that the important things in life are the small ones, the little kindnesses, the wisdom to know when it is better to show mercy rather than kill. That was a hallmark of Tolkien’s beliefs, and having it in the film and focusing on the least obviously heroic of its members brings a reminder of how regular people often perform acts of selfless bravery.
This is a really good movie. Go see it. You can take older children, although you should be warned that there is a lot of violence in it. But it is good. I look forward to the sequels.