Growing up, my extended family had a holiday tradition. During the days following Christmas, the whole 20 some odd of us on my dad’s side of the family would go see a movie in Portland. When I was 10, we chose to see the first installment of “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, Peter Jackson’s first fantasy epic, “The Fellowship of the Ring”.
I had very little exposure to the fantasy genre prior to this movie, and I had never read any of the books. But for the 178 minutes in the theater, I was absolutely enthralled by the story of a young hobbit taking on the herculean task of destroying the ring of power.
I fell in love with the films and through them, discovered the wonder that was “The Hobbit”. While “The Lord of the Rings” was too much for me to digest at the younger age, I read “The Hobbit” cover to cover more times than I can count. Now, 11 years later, my favorite book as a child has made its way to the big screen.
The main thing that needs to be remembered about “The Hobbit” is that it was a children’s book. Written before “The Lord of the Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien looked back at his first foray into the land of Middle-Earth and asked one question of it, “Why is ‘The Hobbit’ a children’s book?” The answer that he determined is that when Bilbo Baggins wrote the story down, he altered the story for a younger audience. Parts of the real, much darker story, were found in the appendices at the end of “The Return of the King”, it is from these appendices, the original book, and “The Quest of Erebor” in the posthumously published “Unfinished Tales” that the new Middle-Earth trilogy was adapted from.
“An Unexpected Journey” features juxtapositions of light and dark tones throughout its 169 minute run time. For those unfamiliar with the original book, the story follows Bilbo Baggins, 60 years prior to the events of “The Fellowship of the Ring”. He is recruited by the traveling wizard, Gandalf the Grey, to join a company of 13 dwarves on a quest to reclaim their kingdom, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug. The use of the extra material is immensely helpful in reconciling the events of “The Hobbit” with the much darker tone of “The Lord of the Rings”. The introduction also segues from Bilbo telling the tale of Erebor right into the events directly before his 111th (or Eleventy-first) birthday, creating the connection between the trilogies while featuring cameo appearances from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins respectively.
Many actors reprise their roles from the original trilogy during this first film and more are set to appear in the next two as well. However, with the exception of Sir Ian McKellen’s return as Gandalf, the main cast is new to the land of Middle-Earth. The actor with the biggest furry feet to fill is Martin Freeman, who plays the young Bilbo in this film, and he does not disappoint. Though the role had already been established by Holm, Freeman’s Bilbo is quite different. He is a normal hobbit, content with eating, drinking and smoking while living a quiet life in his home, Bag-End.
Sitting in the theater, I became that 10-year-old again, enthralled with another journey by another hobbit. The film pays tribute to its predecessor trilogy in many ways, from Gandalf hitting his head on the low hanging chandelier in Bag-End to the way the music plays during the film (and yes, the key theme from the original trilogy gets a small feature). The light and dark moments create a flawless epic that my even out-do the spectacular original trilogy. Anyone who is a fan of the first romp through Middle-Earth will fall in love with the new films just the same. This was a big year for films, with “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” this past summer, the bar was set quite high for “The Hobbit”. However, this cast of short stature was up to the task and, in my opinion, blew the other two films away completely. I stood in line, by myself, in the freezing cold, immediately after an 8 hour work day to see “The Hobbit” and it did not let me down. Go lay down your two bits for this movie (in fact, I suggest you lay down a third bit for the 3D version) then, when the showing lets out, lay down another two bits and see it again.
Part two, “The Desolation of Smaug”, opens next year on Dec. 13 while the final chapter, “There and Back Again”, will open Jul. 18, 2014.