I wasn’t a fan of Peter Jackson’s trilogy “The Lord of the Rings,” although as a young adult I read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” (and, in the interest of full disclosure one of my nicknames that followed me into high school came from the books). Those four books were fine for a junior high school students, but as I grew older, they lost their luster.
Imagine, war with only men or, at least, male humanoids. Men deciding the future of the world and men being the only casualties of war. That is not the reality of war, but a fantasy. And in that fantasy, men can be heroes as if half of the world’s didn’t exist and women and race didn’t somehow play an intrinsic role in the wars of the world. “The Hobbit” was published in 1937 while LOTR was written predominately during World War II.
That was well past the time of the Virgin Queen (d. 1603), Queen Victoria (reigned 1876-1901) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (reign 1137-1204) and just before the reign of the current Queen Elizabeth (reign began in 1952). The first book, “The Fellowship of the Ring” was published in 1954. The last book, “The Return of the King,” was published in October 1955.
Jackson’s “The Hobbit” has already received bad publicity from allegations of animal cruelty on the set and improper care facilities off set. PETA spokesperson, Ingrid E. Newkirk, recently published her take on the incident (13 December 2012). This is not a few animals, but several: 27 to be exact. The range of animals goes from horses to chickens. The complaints weren’t coming just from PETA, but from animal wranglers. You’d think with all the care productions take to house the stars, they would make a greater effort to care for the animals, especially since so few real animals were really needed with the considerable CGI used for the imaginary animals in this movie. Jackson admitted that two of the horse deaths were avoidable, but denied responsibility.
Other reasons for going into this movie with trepidation is the length–nearly three hours. Jackson turned the 300-odd page novel into another trilogy. As one might expect the first installment of “The Hobbit”‘ is ponderous as an overweight elephant. Jackson seems determined not to miss any detail of the books and even to embellish. That might be a worthy concern for a TV mini series but not a feature film. To be fair, this is one of those films written by committee: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo del Toro.
The conceit of the first installment, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” is that the older and wiser Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, a carryover from the LOTR film trilogy), on the very day of his 111th birthday, is going to write out the full details of his adventure that took place 60 years ago for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). He’s not typing it out on a computer, but writing it with a calligraphic pen that needs to be dipped in ink. These scenes could have been easily cut, but the writers clearly wanted to tie the LOTR film trilogy to this film trilogy. Hobbit days must be pretty long, because even on a computer using MS Word, most people would be challenged to write such a tale, but let’s get past this first improbability.
Old Bilbo gives us the backstory, beginning with the King of Erebor, the Dwarf Thrór (Jeffrey Thomas). Thrór is the grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield and the father of Thráin II (Michael Mizrahi). I imagined the dwarves to live in a dark and dank cave–consider their rather rough ways. But Jackson’s film illustrates Erebor as an art deco fantasy metropolis in the side of a mountain.
The dragon Smaug (we only see a bit of tail and a lot of fire) first destroys the township Dale and then continues on to Erebor. Smaug’s motivation is the gold. As the dwarves are leaving, they see see Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace) with the wood elves watching them on horseback, and later, Thorin expresses bitter anger that the elves didn’t want to be burnt to a crisp by joining in an unplanned battle against Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
A passing encounter with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) brings young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) into this adventure. Gandalf marks his door and soon dwarves begin stopping by Bilbo’s place and consuming all of the food in Bilbo’s pantry. In all there are 13 dwarves. There’s a fair bit of fun business here including a song (that is from Tolkien). The soundtrack, however, doesn’t use music well, including this unmemorable melody, making this segment worth editing out in my opinion. The musical poverty seems counterintuitive since LOTR is based on one of the most magnificent pieces of opera. In any case, Bilbo joins this expedition, as a last-minute decision, signing on to be a burglar.
The city Erebor suggests an air of refinement, but the dwarves we meet are rough-mannered and with questionable taste in hairstyles (and we don’t mean just the stuff growing from the tops of their heads). For easy reference (as opposed to character development), the dwarves with long-term bad hair days and wacky whiskers are the comedic relief, but the one with the well-coiffed tresses is the hero, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). For the ladies and gay men, there’s also a young attractive dwarf, Kíli (Aidan Turner), but his tresses are not as magnificent. Although Tolkien described him as having a yellow beard, in Jackson’s movie, he’s almost beardless, having a bit more hair than the Miami Vice scuzzy fuzz.
A bit of a fussbudget, Bilbo creates doubt but first proves his usefulness by helping to stall the dwarf-eating trolls long enough to save his crew. In the trolls’ cave, they find some Elven blades: Thorin takes blade named Orcist and Gandalf takes Glamdring. Bilbo finds himself a shortsword–just the right size for a hobbit.
An encounter with another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), reveals the growing evil in the world of Middle Earth. The dwarves don’t have much time to reflect upon this as they are pursued by orcs on wargs. Radagast and his rabbit-drawn sleigh serve as decoys to draw the orcs away from the dwarf expedition. Gandalf leads the company into an underground passageway and to the Elven city of Rivendell where they meet Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving). Elrond reveals another piece of the puzzle but also expresses doubt.
During their time there, Gandalf meets with the White Council which consists of Elrond, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee). He warns them about Radagast’s news, but the others don’t feel this is important. Since we’ve already seen LOTR, we know better because Saruman will go to the dark side and the necromancer is none other than the Dark Lord Sauron. At this point, the only principal female character, Galadriel, is dressed in a flowing white gown and walks as if floating in her bride-like dress while having telepathic conversations with Gandalf. Why does Elrond not notice this? In the original novel, Galadriel doesn’t appear.
Against the White Council’s wishes, the dwarves continue on to the Misty Mountains without Gandalf. Dwarves may dwell in caves, but they have a fear of falling from the edge of narrow mountain trails. We’re supposed to worry for them, but Jackson makes us feel a bit silly because although a few dwarves and that one sensible hobbit almost fall from that cliff into the seemingly bottomless depths outside on the Misty Mountains, inside the mountains, in the gloomy domain of the goblins (no explanation why the Goblin King is so much larger than his fellows–royal jelly perhaps my husband suggested?) on those rickety wood pathways, the dwarves, clinging to a portion of the wooden pathways, fall several hundred feet, the whole structure hitting several hard surfaces. At the bottom of the cavern, the dwarves emerge without any apparent harm. Dwarves have hardy bones and skin as tough as a rhino’s hide. You feel as if you’re in a Wile E. Coyote-Road Runner cartoon. Inside the Misty Mountains during this cartoonish confrontation,. Gandalf has rejoined the company of dwarves and saved them yet again.
Our hobbit was separated in the caves of the goblins, but he soon rejoins them as they run down the hill out of the goblin caves. He’s had an adventure of his own, meeting Gollum (Andy Serkis) and, inadvertently, acquiring the one ring. As soon as the dwarves, hobbit and wizard are out of the goblin caves, they are again chased by the orcs on wargs. Driven to the edge of a clift, the dwarves, hobbit and wizard take refuge in the trees.
Jackson gives us a cartoon style peril that is incongruous with the epic moments of heroism. Treed by orcs on their wargs–relatives of the wolves which are made to look more like hyenas, the intrepid party are rescued by a moth/butterfly who brings eagles. This is only after Thorin has had his wind-blown tress cover girl moment close-up and runs down a tree that is already almost horizontal to the ground and about to fall off a cliff. Thorin is attacking Azog (Manu Bennett), the orc whose arm he had previously chopped off ages ago (and thought dead). Azog had beheaded Thorin’s father Thrór. Here Jackson does come up an explanation as to why the orcs are after the dwarves (revenge) that doesn’t seem to have been drawn from Tolkien.
The cartoonish humor isn’t limited to dwarf hairstyling and falls. The characterization of the brown wizard Radagast seems better suited for a Harry Potter movie. Not only does he have birds nesting in his hair (under his hat), but their droppings have apparently become caked on one side of his head. Think real hard. Which is worse: a white wizard who sides with evil (in the sequel film trilogy) or a brown wizard who seems on the verge of dementia? Basic chemistry or cooking (or watching “Downton Abbey”) will teach you that lack of good hygiene and careful attention to ingredients and procedure are important. Mistaking salt for sugar or a hobbit for an orc could be disastrous. The wrong recipe in wizardry could be the recipe for disaster or at least that’s what I learned from Harry Potter.
What seems to be the intent is that this first movie, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” to parallel the trilogy. The less than climatic end is the formation of a fellowship. Thorin finally accepts our hobbit as a true and worthy member of the group. Yet we’ll have to see how the second movie, “The Desolation of Smaug,” develops this story and how the final installment, which reportedly draws heavily from the LOTR appendices, resolves the story.