Movie review: “The Hobbit”

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Partner and I saw “The Hobbit” on Xmas Eve. I’m a big Tolkien nerd, so I couldn’t stay away, but I was dreading it a little too. The “Lord of the Rings” movies were beautifully made, but they didn’t always precisely agree with the way I’d imagined the books when I read them in the 1960s, and it hurt my heart a little.

“The Hobbit” is a children’s book. It tells the same basic story as “The Lord of the Rings” – a journey, lots of adventures along the way, spiders, monsters, battles, a distant mountain in the East – but it’s jokey and cute. There are some solemn bits, but they’re solemn in a long-ago-and-far-away fairy-tale way.

So the question was: could Peter Jackson take a funny clever children’s book and make something of it that wasn’t just “Lord of the Rings: the Prequel”?

The early reviews weren’t great. David Edelstein last weekend said that “The Hobbit” was “our punishment for liking ‘The Lord of the Rings’ too much.” Other reviewers complained of all kinds of things: too fast, too slow, too much CGI, too serious, too long. The only reviewer I saw who liked it was the FT’s Nigel Andrews, who calls it “a sort of masterwork.” He allows that you “have to like looking at folkloric weirdos with beards, hats, and bulbous noses,” and also that the first part of the movie has too many “walkies and fighties,” but it carries you along with it anyway.

I am here to tell you that Nigel Andrews was right, and I am the kind of person who likes bulbous noses and pointy hats, and I liked the movie very much.

First, however, the bad news: it’s much too long. The book moves along very briskly, so Jackson really had to pump a bunch of stuff into it to make it longer: flashbacks, explanatory sequences, framing devices. He drew, not only from “The Hobbit,” but from “The Lord of the Rings” itself, and its appendices, and lots of other Tolkien material. I didn’t find it tedious – as I said above, I’m a Tolkien nerd, I can name all thirteen dwarves while standing on my head – but I wondered how Partner was dealing with it. Was he overdosing on Middle-Earth?

But no! He liked it!

So there’s got to be some good stuff there.

Are you kidding? There’s a ton of good stuff there. There’s Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, funny and very (ahem) human; Ian McKellan as a (slightly) younger Gandalf, irascible as ever. Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, and he doesn’t look constipated anymore: he actually looks cheerful at times! And, naturally, you will find Andy Serkis’s Gollum, creepy and sad and horrible, in the movie’s best scene.

Jackson departed from the book, naturally, but his choices were mostly good. Bilbo and Gandalf are travelling with a group of thirteen dwarves. How in the hell do you create thirteen distinctive characters all at once and make them memorable? The answer: you don’t. You make maybe five or six of them distinctive, and rely on the rest of them to make background chatter. So we get to know Balin and Dwalin, and Bofur (I think), and Bombur (well, even in the book he’s the fat one), and Fili and Kili. And that’s plenty.

Jackson made the fight-scenes monumental, and dramatic, and even clever. (Barry Humphries, the comedian who created Dame Edna Everage, is the Great Goblin, a horrible creature with a huge goiter and a gift for snappy dialogue.)

But here’s the best bit of all.

In the book, about fifty pages along, Bilbo and the dwarves encounter three trolls with Cockney accents. The trolls want to eat Bilbo & Co., and have a big argument over how to cook them.

Before we went, I said to Partner, “I hope he gets the trolls right. And I hope they have Cockney accents.”

And they do.

Elbereth bless you, Peter Jackson.


The Hobbit

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Are we looking forward to Peter Jackson’s filmization of “The Hobbit”? Yes, of course we are.

I was born into the Lord of the Rings Generation. When I was in the seventh grade I bought “The Two Towers,” not knowing that it was the second book in the trilogy, and not understanding how trilogies worked in any case.  Naturally I didn’t understand a bit of the plot, but I struggled through it anyway. Then one of my teachers, Mister Lorenz, bless him, noticed what was going on, and offered to lend me his copies of “Fellowship of the Ring” and “Return of the King,” so long as I didn’t damage them.

I was an immediate convert to Tolkienism.

A summer or two later – around 1970, anyway – I wrote to Ballantine Books, and sent them my $2.00, and received in return a copy of “The Hobbit,” which was described on the cover as “the enchanting prelude to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’”

I devoured it in a couple of days.

Have you ever noticed that “Hobbit” is exactly the same story as “Lord of the Rings”? A hobbit (Bilbo / Frodo) is enticed by Gandalf to leave the Shire with a group of oddball travelers. They encounter problems on the way (trolls, Nazgul, whatever). They get to Rivendell and have a chitchat with Elrond. They cross the Misty Mountains, but not without difficulties (Bilbo with Gollum and the goblins, Frodo in Moria). They pop out the other side and have a little rest (Bilbo and the dwarves with Beorn, Frodo and his companions in Lorien). They cross the river, and get into trouble, and get separated. There are spiders. There’s an ominous mountain. There’s a treasure that needs to be thrown away or given away (the Arkenstone / the Ring). There’s a big climactic battle. “The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!” A few key people are killed in each battle (Thorin in “Hobbit,” Theoden in “Rings”).

And then the hobbit goes home to the Shire.

I’m delighted that Jackson is bringing back some key people: Ian McKellen, the perfect Gandalf, and Hugo Weaving, a grave (if intense) Elrond. (Please note that I love the Elrond that Tolkien gives us in the books; he’s thousands of years old, but he’s also very nice. Hugo Weaving looks irritated all the time, or maybe constipated, which is maybe more likely for someone who’s half-human and thousands of years old.)

Martin Freeman, like Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, is a perfect hobbit; like them, he’s a little unearthly-looking.

I hope the movie isn’t too CGI-reliant. “Hobbit” is a children’s book, but this had better not be a children’s movie.

And I don’t know if this is true, but I hear that Stephen Colbert is in the movie, as an elf. (He’s spoken Elvish on his show more than once, so he’s got the right background.)

We will see.

Here’s hoping for the best.


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