Review: 'The Hobbit'

Article first published as "Finding the Epic in The Hobbit" on Technorati.
This is not a weigh-in on the 3D debate: I saw Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in normal format. More interesting to me is Mr. Jackson’s attempt to make the storyline and tone of The Hobbit match the solemnity of The Lord of the Rings. It’s been widely reported that he mined the appendices of LOTR for material to tie the events of The Hobbit more closely to the epic sweep of Tolkien’s later work. He's also added some interpretations of his own.

Jackson is working backwards, applying hindsight to the original story as Tolkien himself did. The difficulty is the mismatch in mood between The Hobbit, a fantasy suitable for children, and LOTR, a complex and mature epic with a majestic, adult tone.

Jackson’s The Hobbit has a prologue with light-hearted scenes of Bilbo at home in the Shire, preparing for the same birthday party that opens LOTR. We glimpse Bilbo’s written chronicle of his earlier adventure, which he hides from Frodo, telling him that it is not yet ready for reading. Then we are in Bilbo’s flashback to the adventure itself, opening with Gandalf’s first visit to Bilbo.

The scene of the dwarves’ arrival is full of slapstick, although Jackson quickly lets us know the seriousness with which the dwarves view their quest to regain their ancestral halls and treasure. Both here and later, in such episodes as Radagast’s discovery of an ailing hedgehog and Thorin & Company’s comical entanglement with fighting stone giants, Jackson seems to play to the young-at-heart. Most of the Radagast scenes, in particular—depicting a whimsical, absent-minded wizard with a rabbit-driven sleigh—have a Disney-esque flavor.

Balanced against this are some very intense scenes of battle and sorcery. The Orcs and wargs were unpleasant to look at in LOTR and have lost none of their hideousness in The Hobbit. LOTR’s grisly Uruk-hai (which I could barely stand to look at) don’t appear in The Hobbit, but the presence of an uber-Orc, the frightful Azog, nearly makes up for their absence.

Especially chilling is the scene in which Radagast investigates the ruins of the forest castle and encounters a proto-Nazgul come to life. The moving fingers of a carved statue eerily coalesce into the hand of a Ringwraith just before Radagast glimpses the shadowy form of the Necromancer himself. Since the usual sighting of Sauron in LOTR (except for a prologue, in which he appears heavily armored) was of his fiery Eye, this apparition is both surprising and unnerving in The Hobbit.

Larky children’s fantasy or the prelude to an epic—Jackson’s film veers back and forth between two territories. Some of the material would have been too intense for me at 8 or 9, though the kids in front of me seemed chatty and unfazed when the credits rolled. To what extent will Jackson be able to blend the two worlds in the films to come? Undoubtedly the Eye of Sauron knows . . . but he’s probably not telling.