By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Two Disc Combo DVD /UV Pack or Three Disc Blu-ray/DVD/UV/Digital Combo) (Four Stars)
New Zealand/U.S.: Peter Jackson, 2012 (New Line Home Video)
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole and that means comfort.
J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”
You read the words and they bathe you in smiles, echo in your imagination — as they probably did when J.R.R. Tolkien first conjured up, as a bedtime story, the land of Hobbits and Bag’s End and Middle-earth’s mountains and the dragons and elves and, of course, that precious ring, all in his great fantasy story, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again”the saga with which he enraptured his home audience as he began to weave it, all those decades ago, back in the 1930s.
So Tolkien, the long-time Oxford professor of English literature, told that story and later wrote it down and published it in 1937 — and then, while the whole word seemed drenched in the fire and war and bloodshed of World War II, he continued. He expanded the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo and the wizard Gandalf and the Elves and Gollum and fashioned it into the three-part saga, “The Lord of the Rings” – one of those books that has to be made into a movie. And it was, at first sort of interestingly but not too well (by animator Ralph Bakshi in 1978), and then very well indeed, by New Zealand’s Peter Jackson in his trilogy of movies for New Line — spread out on vast, seething imaginary landscapes that were halcyon (at first), and violent (at last). It was a series that was one of the cinematic triumphs of the new millennium, almost as much as Citizen Kane was the triumph (still the top one, for me) of the old one.
And now, nine years after Jackson’s The Return of the King, the third of his Ring Trilogy movies, seemed to close the book on his movie Middle-Earth, back he comes with his company’s (WingNut) version of Tolkien’s prelude novel from the ‘30s: The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Hurrah. This new movie, which only a goblin would call a prequel, is a delight. Concisely yet spectacularly, it fills in the context of the great goblin-dwarf wars that preceded the events here, and then swoops us over to Bags End and Bilbo’s comfortable Hobbitworld, where Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) shows up to recruit little Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman, of the original British “Office“) for the quest. A seemingly strange choice, this small homebody creature , but the towering Gandalf wants little Bilbo to act as burglar for the group. The wizardwants him to crawl beneath the monsters and pilfer their riches and the ring.
Bilbo and Gandalf are then joined in a memorably rowdy banquet in Bilbo’s packed Hobbit-hole by thirteen dwarves, led by the heroic but sometimes ill-tempered Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). All of them want to regain the kingdom they lost to the Goblins, Orcs and the wolfish Worgs. But Thorin doesn’t want Bilbo as part of the troupe, doesn’t think he’s the heroic type. (At first, he isn’t.) So off they go, and soon they’re battling or sneaking around the Goblins and Orcs, and marching through forests and clambering over mountains — which magically come alive and turn into living, heaving, malevolent rock beings — and eventually whooshing down goblin roller-coasters to the torchlit bowels of the earth.
As for little Bilbo, he encounters the greatest riches of this Ring Movie, and I don’t mean the ring itself, which does indeed make its first chronological appearance. Instead, I’m talking about the reappearance of everyone’s favorite revolting cave creature Gollum (played by everyone’s favorite computer-enhanced actor, Andy Serkis). Ah Gollum — the lovable monstrosity who crawls around caverns looking like the pale, superannuated, suoer-animated corpse of some slimmed down Peter Lorre, and talking like death warmed over, lightly. Gollum, who plays with Gollumesque intensity the riddle games with Bilbo, the contests that provide this filmed Hobbit’s most memorable moments. There are more — but why descend right now into the underworld of Spoiler Alert, where mountains heave and Trolls attack and winged creatures swoop down and viewers quibble?
Jackson’s movie of The Hobbit (or The Unexpected Journey) got a thunderous reception from the world public, but also a mixed vote from American critics, the smartest of whom tended to be the more negative. Obviously, I think these Nay-sayers were wrong, or ungenerous. But I see their points. Jackson made three very long movies out of The Lord of the Rings — The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2003) and The Return of the King (2004) — and then he put out expanded editions, which brought the whole film trilogy to something over ten hours. Now, amazingly (to some) he has made, or has in post-production, three more long movies (The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey itself is a smidgeon under three hours) out of what was originally a single book, and a shorter one (287 pages in my Ballantine softcover edition) – a good size for a novel, but briefer than any of the three single volumes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now, isn’t that perhaps forced trilogizing? Contriving three where one served nobly before?
Not really. Responsible people have said that The Hobbit is dull, at least compared to the Ring Trilogy. But why compare it to the Ring Trilogy? One might more profitably measure it against other attempts at Tolkien (like Bakshi‘s), or, even better, to the sometimes miserable, mundane, mindless and often over-violent sorry excuses for adventure or action or fantasy movies we see every week or month or so. The Hobbit may be elongated, but it’s certainly not dull, unless you’re stacking it up against The Terminator or Die Hard or the Indiana Jones trilogy, or maybe Jackson’s own over-the-edge 1992 horror movie, Dead Alive.
In fact, I was glad to have the non-action character stuff – which was truer to Tolkien’s original book. We critics (I include myself) like to carp, and we sometimes do it too much. We like to show (I include myself) that we’re impervious to hype, and that we’re in favor of the little guy (like Bilbo?) and the little film. Yet it does strike me as dubious, for reviewers attack a faithful movie adaptation of a piece of major world literature as being too faithful to its source. Or when some of us demand (especially in the light of Newtown) more action and violence earlier on, or complain that there are too many characters (often we’re lucky if we get even a handful) or express boredom because the director and writers are holding off on the carnage. If we’d been around in 1925, and if we’d been asked our opinion, would we have complained that Erich Von Stroheim’s original ten hour cut of Greed was too long? That Bondarchuk‘s War and Peace had too much talk and not enough action, not soon enough? Are we perhaps, a little too impervious to hype?
Maybe Anyway, the script — by writers Jackson (himself), Fran Walsh, Philippe Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (the original designated dirrector) — seemed to me both gratifyingly Tolkien-reverent and glowingly alive. Jackson and his production returnees and newcomers — including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hannah and composer Howard Shore — deliver the Ring once more. (In theaters, by the way, I preferred the 24 version to the 48, and flat to 3D.)
What of the actors in The Hobbit? Well, holdovers and all, it’s a splendid cast, starting with Freeman and Armitage and with the veterans McKellen (bravo), Sierkis (bravissima), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Hugo Weaving (Elf Lord Elrond), the splendiferous and lovely Cate Blanchett (Elf Queen Galadriel ), the somewhat sinister Saruman (Christopher Lee, Hammering it out). Of the twelve dwarves who accompany Thorin, I will admit that some of them do tend to run together on first (or first and a half) viewing – there’s an Oin, a Gloin, an Ori, a Dori, a Nori, a Kili and a Fili. But my favorite dwarf was wise old Balin (played by an actor (Ken Stott, who was the cop in Shallow Grave),.
Then there are the three fellows, Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow and William Kircher, who do double duty as dwarfs and trolls, acquitting themselves admirably in this complex double assignment.. One might feel that the flower of United Kingdomish (especially Scottish), or Australian or New Zealand acting should have better things to do than dress up as trolls and dwarfs and wizards, and cavort around breathtaking New Zealand landscapes and sound stages. But who’s to say? I thought they all had the motivations of their creatures down pretty well. The fact that Jackson was so obsessively faithful to his source — that he gives us all thirteen dwarfs, instead of cutting them to a more manageable seven (as some have suggested) is, I think a point in The Hobbit’s favor. Most great novels made into movies get unforgivably truncated. There are actually plausible reasons to stretch this one into a trilogy (a lot happens or is implied in Tolkien‘s Hobbit book), and there are excellent reasons to try to appeal to the masses as well as the cognoscenti (and vice versa).
Anyway, I like long movies, as long as they have something to be long about. Sue me.
So…Another major achievement, as far as I‘m concerned — if one, at least in the beginning, slightly more flawed, and later, more elongated. I like it much more than, say, Zero Dark Thirty. Movies were made to tell stories like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and we should be glad that Tolkien dreamed them up, and clothed them in words, and that Jackson came along later, to put them all into moving pictures. This is what more movies should try to do: to be faithful to (and imaginative with) good or great literature. And to be, when it’s called for, sturdy, comfortable, scrumptious, Hobbitish, Gollumesque, action-packed, gorgeous, full of wonders, full of marvels, courageous, loyal, brilliant, dry, bare, sandy, bathed in smiles – and impervious to hype.
Extras (all on Blu-ray, some on DVD): Featurette: New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth; Video Blogs; Game Trailer.