For viewers who were enthralled by Peter Jackson’s majestic films of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, watching the first installment (of three) of Jackson’s version of The Hobbit is likely to be equal parts pleasure and frustration. It is a pleasure to have Middle Earth brought to life on the screen, to see so many familiar faces, and to hear once again Tolkien’s eloquent words. It is frustrating that Jackson has attempted to stretch a modest story into three films, a decision that results in the first film, at least, being filled with a tedious series of chase and escape scenes. The visual distractions caused by the new supercharged format, which delivers 3D images at 48 frames per second in place of the usual 24, also irritate. There are many things to like about the film, and some of the enduring themes of Tolkien’s vision emerge, but the way Jackson delivers the experience to the viewer turns inside out Tolkien’s understanding of fantasy.
The Hobbit tells a fantasy story about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who becomes an unlikely hero of Middle Earth as he joins a troop of dwarves in their quest to reclaim their homeland and their treasures of gold in the Lonely Mountain from the dragon, Smaug. In translating the story from page to screen, Jackson again does quite well in his selection of actors. Viewers will be happy to encounter familiar faces: Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Saruman, Andy Serkis as a CGI Gollum, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Newcomers Richard Armitage, as Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, and Martin Freeman, as Bilbo, are also perfectly cast.
Amid all the action, there are some very entertaining scenes: the dramatic arrival of the dwarves at Bag End, invading Bilbo’s comfortable house and devouring his food, and an encounter with cannibalistic trolls that contains a good bit of humor.
There are a few scenes that come close to the grandeur of much of LOTR. One is a meeting of Elrond, Saruman, Galadriel, and Gandalf, at which they discuss the merits of the quest to recover the mountain from the control of the dragon. Saruman and Elrond counsel patience and inactivity — they worry that the quest will disturb centuries of peace — but, interpreting ancient prophecies and discerning the rise of an evil power, Gandalf urges a continuation of the quest. Galadriel concurs.
Another excellent scene is the riddle contest. Lost in a cave, in which he has just found a gold ring, Bilbo encounters a strange and menacing creature, Gollum. Keeping the creature at arm’s length with his sword, Bilbo challenges Gollum to a contest of riddles. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out; if Gollum wins — well, he will have supper. This is one of the few moments in the film in which we sense that something is at stake; it’s also a pivotal scene for the character development of Bilbo. Throughout the first half of the film, Bilbo is a bemused bystander, who has difficulty overcoming his initial instinctive reaction to adventures, which he terms “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.” Here, however, we begin to detect that Bilbo possesses sufficient mettle and intelligence to justify Gandalf’s confidence in him.