by Colette Bancroft
Times Book Editor
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is Lord of the Rings light, and I mean that in the best possible way.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first, as a children's book, and after its success he expanded its world into the epic three-volume The Lord of the Rings. Director Peter Jackson has made the movies the other way around, and he did a splendid job with the Rings trilogy. But I had my doubts when he announced he would expand The Hobbit — a slim, fast-paced little tale — into three films as well.
I'm still not sure how well it will stretch out (the other films are due in 2013 and 2014), but the first installment is a charmer. Yes, a charmer, not the word you might expect given the martial, serious, even grim tone of the Rings movies. But as a book, The Hobbit is much lighter in tone, and Jackson has made this movie downright funny.
Much of the credit for The Hobbit's humor goes to Martin Freeman's smart and engaging performance as Bilbo Baggins. Freeman (Sherlock, The Office) is a wonderful comic actor, and he deploys those skills to draw us into Bilbo's unwilling journey. Unlike his nephew Frodo, the youthful central figure who comes of age in Rings, Bilbo is middle-aged and happily set in his ways. Adventures, he complains at first, "make you late for dinner," and when we see his adorable hobbit hole and his overflowing (at least until the dwarves arrive) pantry, we understand his reluctance to leave.
But he does, rising to the first of many challenges to aid 13 dwarves on what sounds like a pretty sketchy quest: to reclaim their ancestral kingdom in the Lonely Mountain from Smaug, a fearsome dragon that drove their people out 60 years ago and has been sitting on their gold hoard ever since.
Taking up the comic cues, the dwarves are an uproarious lot, given to feasting, drinking, burping contests and practical jokes (not to mention hilarious hairstyles) when they're not busy efficiently slaying orcs and goblins.
The wizard Gandalf (the marvelous Ian McKellen) is as magical as in Rings, but we see much more of his wickedly funny side. Minor characters take comic turns, too, from Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a hippie wizard who drives a bunny-drawn sleigh and maybe digs mushrooms a bit too much, and the cheerfully disgusting goblin king, voiced with great brio by Barry Humphries (better know as Dame Edna Everage). A trio of trolls echoes the Three Stooges, and even icy Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gets a little flirty.
Not that The Hobbit lacks rousing battle scenes. I could have done with fewer myself, although the battle in the goblin cave is a stunner. Jackson adores moving shots over vertiginous depths, especially from narrow ledges and swaying, fraying bridges; if you're afraid of heights, count on hiding your eyes. But the most harrowing and suspenseful scene in the movie is Bilbo's fateful encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis), which is entirely a battle of wits.
I saw the movie in 3D and the new 48-frames-per-second technology Jackson developed himself (which caused a 15-minute delay in the screening as techs tinkered with it). The doubled frames per second do a great job of enhancing detail — perhaps too great. The technology tends to bring the background of scenes into the foreground, in effect making them so real we're aware of their unreality, or emphasizing detail to distracting degrees — in closeups, McKellen's crow's feet and eye bags look like a mountain range.
But that's a quibble. Tolkien geeks will be arguing over the adaptation for years to come, and I'm still holding my breath over Parts 2 and 3. But the first leg of this Journey is a joy.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.