By Eleanor Ringel Cater
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is a children’s book.
Let me repeat that.
“The Hobbit” is a children’s book.
Not a little kid’s book, but definitely aimed at eight and older fantasists. I can’t imagine anyone over 13 reading it, unless, they love “Lord of the Rings” so much, they must have more Tolkien.
That doesn’t mean adults wouldn’t enjoy it, but probably more in the way they enjoy “Harry Potter” (as I do). “The Hobbit” is about dwarfs and dragons and trolls and orcs and elves and stolen treasure and a wizard and a Hobbit and a wretched creature that calls himself Gollum.
And a Ring. Yes, The Ring.
Peter Jackson, whose “Ring” trilogy is about as sensational as anyone who loves the books could’ve hoped for, wasn’t initially all that interested in directing “The Hobbit.” One of the reasons, I think, is because it is nothing, really, like “LOTR.” It simply occupies the same Middle Earth.
So, it’s like saying “The Searchers” is similar to “Blazing Saddles” because they both take place in the Old West.
However, because the story introduces Gollum and Gandalf and the Shire and The Ring and the peculiar relationship Hobbits seem to have with The Ring, the book (and movie) has a very legitimate claim on being a prequel.
Set 60 years before “LOTR,” the story concerns Frodo’s uncle Bilbo. You remember him as Ian Holm, the older Hobbit who, with some difficulty, passed The Ring on to his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood who appears in a brief cameo. The younger Bilbo, ardently played here by Martin Freeman (from the original British “The Office”) is living a quiet life in The Shire when, one sunny day, the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, who has nailed this character there and back again) drops by. Seems there are some dwarfs who may need some help. Seems their underground living space (to say nothing of their pile of gold) has been taken by the dragon Smaug.
I’ve never been quite certain why Bilbo was needed to help them; he’s identified as a burglar to strangers, but ….
Maybe it was all part of Tolkien’s grand scheme to place The Ring in Hobbit hands and thus take us into the grander fantasy of “LOTR.” At any rate, Bilbo is included as a “burglar” — though most immediately, he provides a temporary refuge for 13 dwarfs who need to re-group.
Thus, this fellowship consists of said dwarfs, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage, who is no Viggo Mortensen), Bilbo, and Gandalf. There is a sleepover in Rivendell, which allows Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett to make cameo appearances (I’m not sure either of their characters appear in “The Hobbit”).
The rest is a lot of trekking, fighting, dwarf humor and 48…shorthand that every Blog Boy or Techie Fiend knows as an advance over the usual 24-frames-per-second? (I think that’s it but I am no Blog Boy or Techie Fiend; I just remember Goddard’s oft-quoted “Cinema is truth 24 frames a second;” guess he’ll have to revise that).
The fellowship is headed to the dwarfs’ old hangout called Lonely Mountain — a thudding linguistic note that underscores the difference between this and “LOTR.”
They encounter orcs, elves, well, see above.
Essentially “The Hobbit” is a journey, like “LOTR” or, for that matter, “Lassie Come Home.” Several enjoyable characters are introduced. One example: An environmentally passionate Wizard who gets around in a sleight pulled by giant rabbits.
However, Jackson has not lost his Tolkien touch. The movie’s most thrilling scene is the encounter between Bilbo and that sad, slimy psycho, Gollum (Andy Serkis, giving as great a supporting performance as I’ve seen all year). Here is where “The Hobbit” collides with “LOTR” and here is where the film seems most conscious of its considerable heritage.
“The Hobbit” is in no way a bad movie. It’s a very good — and very long — children’s movie, with the usual doses of violence and peril. What worried me most was, this thing is almost three hours long. Jackson plans two more three-hour installments. I just can’t my head around a nine-hour trilogy based on “The Hobbit.”
Not even Lassie took nine hours to come home.
DVD Recommendation: We think of Sir Ian McKellen in that Wizard’s hat and cane so often there’s even a joke made about it in the new thriller, “Zero Dark 30.” To see him in something entirely different, try “Richard III” in which he plays the hunchbacked villain with an elegant relish for being a Bad Boy. A Very Bad Boy.