Peter Jackson, whose epic trilogy THE LORD OF THE RINGS, became one of the most successful franchises in movie history, has returned to J.R.R. Tolkien's fabled Middle Earth, this time to tell the prequel to LOTR. Fortunately, he has more success than George Lucas did with his clunky prequels to the original STAR WARS series. THE HOBBIT (1937) is a relatively short and simple book about dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit on a quest for gold. It would have made one good film, but Jackson has decided to go the trilogy route again. Whether for profit or for story-telling possiblities remains to be seen.
Jackson's first installment of THE HOBBIT is a long, sometimes over-stuffed but energetic adventure that presses the major themes of most fantasy stories for young people: good battling evil against almost impossible odds and the process of the protagonist accepting his role in that battle. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins, a home-body Hobbit who leaves his comfort zone to follow a ragged band of dwarves and their psychic leader the itinerant wizard Gandalf in a quest for the gold stolen by the dragon Smaug. Their journey is filled with nasty Orcs, ghastly dwarf-eating trolls, and worst of all, carnivorous goblins. Some of the battles, especially with the Orcs, seem overly repetitive. How many Orc heads do we need thrown in our faces in ever-sharpening 3-D technology? And why does it take 40 minutes for Bilbo and the gang to leave the shire in the first place?
Nevertheless, there are wonderful moments in THE HOBBIT. One of the best is Bilbo's extended confrontation with the younger version of Gollum we know from LOTR. Played again with a mixture of uncanny grace and repulsiveness, Gollum is one of the great film characters in film history, and Andy Serkis, who voiced him and motion-captured him deserves an Oscar nod. Bilbo and Gollum play an amusing game of riddles, with Bilbo's life on the line. When Gollum loses the Ring the entire plot of Lord of the Rings is set in motion. The second scene that stands out is both humorous and stomach-churning. The hellish Goblin kingdom in underground caverns is a marvel of intricate crosswalks, ladders and crannies all leading to the grossly obese King of the Goblins, who cracks jokes as he plans his next snack. And there is a beautiful scene of the dwarves' aerial rescue by magnificent eagles.
Peter Jackson may not have matched his Oscar-winning triumph THE RETURN OF THE KING, but he has created a rousing and often beautiful entertainment in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.