There and back again

Peter Jackson stays true to Tolkein’s (and his own) vision of Middle Earth

Bilbo, the ring bearer.

Bilbo, the ring bearer.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Being someone who preferred the relative economy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit to the epic sprawl of his The Lord of the Rings, I would have preferred a single movie rather than the extended trilogy director Peter Jackson has planned for us. I don’t have the patience to wait a year for each entry. But I’m a fleeting observer of the source material, and this adaptation isn’t aimed at me. What is admirable is that the man has wielded his clout to pull off structuring this all in a way that should satisfy even the most churlish fan of the mythology. And he does a mostly wonderful job of painting a three-hour mural that evokes everyone from Bruegel to Parrish to Bosch, by way of the Brothers Hildebrandt.

Almost fetishistically faithful to the source material (as polished by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and fellow fanboy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro), the movie hits all the expected marks as a very short dude with big hairy feet, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is drafted by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, of course) and 12 … no, 13 dwarves for a quest to reclaim a conquered kingdom. And retrieve some gold. Lots of gold. Piles of it. And of course there’s walking. Lots and lots of walking in single file as the camera swoons across the New Zealand landscapes. And the 3-D is swell.

Problem is, there’s also this badass dragon that’s taken up residence in the halls of their mountain home. And snooty elves and dim-bulb trolls, gooey goblins and grotty orcs and all sorts of other nasty perils getting in the way of their destination. By the closing, we get only within looking distance, with the promise of a peek at the dragon in the next episode. (Maybe if they’d got off to an earlier start rousting Bilbo out of his comfy digs …)

Overall, The Hobbit pretty much delivers on what it promises, and then some, as it incorporates elements of Tolkein’s The Silmarillion to pad out … I mean, enhance the mythos. But it is also a familiar story that is brought to life with an odd balance of twee sporadically interrupted by bursts of testosterone (and a dash of Cate Blanchett, with some Christopher Lee awesomeness thrown in).

There was a nice comfort in having scenes that I haven’t read in 40 years suddenly bloom to life from dusty memory. The iconic battle of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum was fantastically realized. The motion-capture technology is top of the game here, with Andy Serkis’ froggy li’l critter breathing real air.

One has to appreciate the attention to detail Jackson and his crew put into realizing his overall vision, a rarity in the rubberstamp blockbuster system. And in that way a silly little fantasy movie transcends genre to become a unique experience in itself. Assuming, of course, the following two episodes deliver the goods. Jackson seems reliable.