A little more than thirteen years ago, I sat in a theater watching an old beloved franchise return to the big screen after a long gap. I had faith. I had hope. And while I walked out saying how much I loved it, how much it felt like the original, even then I could feel the tiniest bit of obligation behind my words. I had to love it because I’d loved what had come before. And for six more years I convinced myself I still loved it, despite all the evidence before my eyes, despite the nagging doubts, despite the clear evidence before my eyes. Eventually, the blinders fell off, and I was able to separate the new thing from the old thing, knowing that loving one didn’t demand loving the other.
Last night was the opposite. I’d been sort of dreading The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, even back when the story was just going to be two films. That dread grew when Peter Jackson announced it would be three. I hated the idea of forcing all this extraneous material into what was a simple adventure story. He’d already done the expansive epic with The Lord of the Rings; why treat The Hobbit the same way simply because it was by the same author? I feared Bilbo’s story would feel small, insignificant compared to the mighty deeds of powerful beings that had been inserted into his tale. But there I was opening night, having paid the up-charge for IMAX and 3D, gazing up with a mix of anticipation and apprehension.
Some three hours later, I walked out thinking to myself, “The crazy son of a bitch did it.”
Make no mistake, this isn’t J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it’s Jackson’s. How much that works for you depends greatly on how much his Rings trilogy worked for you, and on how much you revere Tolkien’s original prose. And with my misgivings, there was a sort of decompression period early on, where I had to get myself in tune with what Jackson was doing and accept that I wasn’t going to see the book word for word, or even beat for beat. It was also probably a bad idea to have watched the Rankin-Bass Hobbit the night before. For all it leaves out from the book, its pace and tone are pretty spot on, and the big moments it hits, it hits pretty damned well. That was in my mind as the film began as well. So when things started with an older Bilbo recounting the tale of Smaug coming to the Lonely Mountain, part of me was rebelling inside. “NO! They’re supposed to talk about that during the party! It’s the song, dammit!”
But once I stopped holding it against the film for being something it wasn’t, it was surprisingly easy to get caught up in it. Jackson just simply gets Middle-Earth, at least in the cinematic sense. And as he did in the Rings films, he doesn’t worry so much about the letter of the text as he does the spirit. So yes, Radagast the Brown doesn’t appear in any of the books in any appreciable fashion, but his depiction here feels right. Sure, Azog the orc was actually dead by the time The Hobbit takes place, but his presence as a pursuing threat gives the story a consistent antagonist, something the book lacks and which can make it seem a bit episodic. And granted, much of the Radagast and Azog material is there to help stretch the story out to three films, but they also provide payoff in this film. All while feeling like an organic part of the story (there’s maybe one Radagast scene that felt like special edition Blu-ray material, but Sylvester McCoy is so delightful in the role, I didn’t mind).
My main fear, though, had been that adding in pieces of the larger story would make Bilbo’s story feel less significant. And that’s never the case here, mostly due to the script giving him a definite arc throughout the film, and to the absolutely charming performance given by Martin Freeman. He is Bilbo from the first moment we see him, contentedly puffing on his pipe, and Freeman wisely chooses to play him not so much as a coward or weakling, but as someone who’s become comfortable and doesn’t want to leave that comfort. Yes, his initial doubts are ones for his physical safety, but as the quest goes on, they become doubts over his place in the group, their acceptance of him, and his value to them. In a wonderful scene between Freeman and James Nesbitt as the dwarf Bofur, he’s ready to turn around and head back home all by himself in the midst of the Misty Mountains, certainly not the act of a coward. He’s not afraid to be there; he just doesn’t feel like he belongs there. It’s a matter of underestimating himself and his worth, and if by the end of the film he’s not 100% sure of himself, he’s certainly caused Thorin and the dwarves to re-evaluate their opinion of him. Freeman really nails that delicate balance of a person who doubts what they can do in the abstract, but when push comes to shove, does the right thing, all without losing Bilbo’s innate hobbit-ness.
All the performances are great, even if some of the dwarves aren’t given much time to shine individually. Jackson was smart in giving each dwarf a distinctive look rather than having them all be Gimli clones, because their mere appearance gives them personality without having to stop the film and give each one a “moment.” So far, it looks like Thorin, Balin, Bofur, Fili and Kili are going to be getting the most attention, which, honestly, is more than Tolkien did in the book (he spent most of his time on Thorin with a nod or two Balin’s way here and there). Again though, there are two more films to go, and plenty of chances for the other eight dwarves to have their time in the spotlight. As for the non-dwarves, it’s so great to see Ian McKellen’s cranky, dishevelled Gandalf the Grey back on the screen, after getting so relatively little of him in the Rings trilogy. It’s just a much more fun version of the character, and McKellen clearly relishes being back in the role. It’s just as great to see Christopher Lee back as Saruman, this time not outwardly villainous but more annoyed and impatient with his more colorful subordinates. And Cate Blanchett is absolutely luminous in her brief but memorable turn as Galadriel. Always shot so that her flowing gown makes her seem to be floating angelically above the ground, she’s a radiant mixture of ancient power and bountiful warmth. There’s really not a bad performance in the entire film, and they all help keep things grounded when the CGI wolves and goblins start to fly.
Some people will gripe about the length, but for me, it was like sinking back into a familiar leather chair and letting the memories wash over me. Yes, you could say the structure does mimic that of The Fellowship of the Ring a little too closely (which I suppose you could lay at Tolkien’s feet). And nobody is going to be surprised by The Hobbit. There’s not the “I can’t believe he pulled it off!” of Fellowship, the “I can’t believe he did it again!” of Two Towers, or the “I can’t believe he stuck the landing!” of Return of the King. We expect Jackson to be good at this, and maybe that’s leading some to not give him enough credit for this go-round. But having come from a place where I wasn’t willing to extend him any credit at all, I’m happily willing to eat crow.
As I walked out into the night after seeing the film, that little voice of doubt that I ignored thirteen years ago was nowhere to be found. This doesn’t feel like slavish, required devotion, an apology for a flawed product I feel compelled to defend. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey won’t make you forget The Lord of the Rings, but it won’t make you wish you were watching that instead either, and it’s worthy of sitting on the same shelf. Jackson’s got two more films in which he could conceivably screw the whole thing up. But at least I’m actually on board for those two films now.