Friday, 18 January 2013

The Hobbit – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Before Frodo Baggins and other members of the Fellowship of the Ring undertook the journey that made cinematic epic fantasy cool (and brought it to the Oscars), Frodo’s uncle Bilbo had an adventure of his own. It is this adventure that comes to life in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (directed by Peter Jackson). Although it was published nearly twenty years before his Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit comes to the 21st century theatregoer as a prequel.

Bilbo Baggins is quite content reading his books and smoking his pipe within his cosy hobbit-hole. Then Gandalf the Grey (wizard) asks Bilbo to leave his domestic tranquillity to help a group of dwarves travel to The Lonely Mountain to seize back their Kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug that stole it.

True to the next stage of the Hero’s Journey, Bilbo initially refuses the call to adventure. Why would Gandalf call on a lowly hobbit to accompany a band of gruff dwarves on a life-threatening quest? When Bilbo finally does accept the call, he does so reluctantly: as the journey begins, Bilbo discovers he forgot his handkerchief. Nonchalantly he says, “We’ll have to go back.”

The other hero of this film is Thorin Oakenshield, the courageous and markedly human-looking leader of the dwarf band. Thorin’s distrust of anyone other than dwarves or Gandalf is fuelled by a painful past: his father’s obsession with gold led to a mental breakdown; Smaug stole his people’s home; a massive pale orc named Azog beheaded his grandfather; and orcs slaughtered all but Thorin’s twelve comrades while their elfin neighbours refused to help.

Both heroes must overcome significant roadblocks. Bilbo, the unexpected hero undertaking the unexpected journey, must leave his comfort zone, come to terms with his self-doubt and embrace social outreach. On the surface, Thorin must regain his rightful home for his people. On a deeper level, he must learn to trust.

A must-see for any high fantasy fan, The Hobbit is filled with the typical LOTR fare: monsters, panoramic views of the heroes travelling amid the beauty of New Zealand, dramatic speeches and chases. Moreover, the film is rich with tension… between the heroes and their enemies, between the dwarves and the elves, and between Bilbo and Thorin, who believes the hobbit more of a burden than a help. And there are plenty of obstacles to confront the venturers: trolls, goblins, rock monsters (a hilarious scene), Gollum (an LOTR mainstay who popularized the word “precious”), and the monomaniacal Azog seeking vengeance on Thorin, who chopped off the orc’s arm in an earlier battle. Surprisingly, the film manages all this excitement without resorting to a love story.

The film falters a bit when Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves arrive at Rivendell, the dreamy home of the elves. There is a lot to work with here, even beyond the elephant (or better yet, dragon) in the room (i.e. the elves turning their backs when the dwarves most needed them). The dwarves are hairy, and the elves are clean-shaven. The dwarves are impulsive, the elves reflective. The dwarves crave meat, while the elves like veggies and nuts. Instead of capitalizing on this tension, the film moves to an expository barrage in which the boresome foursome (Gandalf, Elrond (elfin leader), Galadriel (elfin female), and Saruman the White (wizard)) go off on a tangent about an evil sword and a necromancer that only steadfast fans can follow. Galadriel remains a cyst on the LOTR dynasty. As the only woman in The Hobbit, she continues her role as a glowing, virginal, echoing, slow-talking embodiment of the nerdy sword and sorcery fan’s conception of a female.

Additionally, do not expect the unexpected journey to be wrapped up in a single film. Why would filmmakers do that when they can make so much more money by stretching The Hobbit into three films?

The Hobbit redeems itself by carrying through the thematic issues that the LOTR collection so breathtakingly expresses: loyalty, social outreach, the triumph of good over evil. Several of the speeches are particularly well-done. For instance, when discussing why he chose Bilbo for this task, Gandalf says, “I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” Similarly, Bilbo strays from the dramatic presentation typical of fantasy heroes to explain in a very down-to-earth way why he is helping the elves: “I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that’s where I belong; that’s home, and that’s why I came because you don’t have one… a home. It was taken from you, but I will help you take it back if I can.”

The Hobbit offers the viewer a lighter version of the LOTR films; since Bilbo is telling the story, we know that he will survive. However, though the members of this tribe are small in stature, the meaning of their journey takes on great importance. In some ways, Bilbo stands as a more admirable hero than his nephew. First, Bilbo doesn’t have a Samwise Gamgee to rescue him every time he passes out. Second, if Frodo refuses the call, all the good guys (including Frodo) die. If Bilbo refuses the call, his comfortable life goes on without a hitch. So technically, Bilbo’s decision to help has less to do with self-preservation than does Frodo’s.

Everyone experiences a situation in which he or she is asked to give up what is comfortable to help someone in need. Perhaps we could all learn a lesson by taking a page from Bilbo Baggins’s book.

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