Once the distinct, familiar sense of wonder took hold, I felt a sharp pang of guilt watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, part one of Peter Jackson's long-gestating Lord of the Rings prequel. Here's a movie that so many, myself included, regarded with great prejudice, sizing it up as a cute jaunt that had to be seen along with the other year-end contenders, yet reeked of folly, diminished stakes, and outright opportunism, its attachment to a trilogy making excess seem like one more strike against it. But, then, as Jackson's camera began scanning New Zealand's topography, with majestic Howard Shore accompaniment, this arrogant miscalculator (and ardent Rings fan) sat humbled and corrected. Jackson may not boast a sterling track record post-Return of the King, and The Hobbit may have suffered a heap of development hell, passing from Jackson to (eventual co-writer) Guillermo del Toro like a certain burdensome bauble, but shame on all who doubt the enduring, enveloping power of Jackson's Middle-earth, an immersive and comprehensive filmic world if ever there was one. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brought me right back to a place I didn't realize I was missing, a widescreen realm that seems to exist to widen the eyes.
The new film does indeed tell the same tale as J.R.R. Tolkien's lean Rings precursor, charting the exploits of Frodo Baggins's uncle Bilbo (Martin Freeman) some 60 years before the quest to destroy the One Ring, but the narrative soars because it also operates as something tangential to the almost-decade-old movie trilogy, setting the stage while also expanding this rich universe. A combination of Tolkien's Hobbit text and material from his Rings appendices, the script, which again saw input from Rings film trilogy co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens, takes a great deal of liberties, bringing back familiar characters like Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee), none of whom appear in the Hobbit book, and making ample, ominous mention of the “Necromancer,” who will evolve to become the dreaded Lord Sauron. For fans of the earlier movies, the connective tissue is comforting, but it's the seemingly endless potential of Middle-earth as a character-packed setting that squashes the purist notion of a whole new trilogy being too much. In The Hobbit, Jackson introduces new cultures, new lands, and new villains, and even if most are a bit less sober and formidable than those which Frodo and company faced down, they have a comparable urgency in this offshoot adventure, whose stakes are not diminished, but simply different.
Likewise, the tone of Jackson's latest is, appropriately, much more jovial than that of Rings, which unfolds in an era far more stricken with despair. The darkness is only just starting to creep in this time around, which partly explains The Hobbit's recurring orange sunshine, an aesthetic choice thus far unfamiliar to Jackson's environment. So much of what appears in this film suggests the prequel trilogy could not have been made first, at least not in the way it's arrived in theaters. When The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in 2001, and the Harry Potter franchise was still in its infancy, fantasy was hardly in vogue, a fact that surely (and thankfully) influenced Jackson's insistence on crafting the first three films with as much adult realism as possible. He notably cut some of the frothier bits, including anything with the tuneful Tom Bombadil, and it took the Academy three years to warm to his brand of swords and sorcery. Nine years later, in the wake of countless imitators and amid a post-Glee culture, he delivers something unabashedly fantastical, its color, liveliness, and, yes, songs as much text-appropriate as they are reflective of the director's newfound freedom. Shifting tides and Jackson's Rings clout not only won him the green light for three new films, it loosened the reigns on what he could explore.
More than the elves, or any other race we've met in Middle-earth, the dwarves require some considerable suspension of disbelief, as half of them look a bit like cousins of Santa Claus, and their activities include impromptu musical numbers, an on-screen pastime that's only recently regained widespread viewer love, with everything from Pitch Perfect to Les Misérables. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who essentially serves as the new Aragorn, the dwarves broodingly croon about their home at Lonely Mountain, which the evil dragon Smaug has greedily taken over, and they belt lyrics while tossing dishes after a feast at Bilbo's house. It's the kind of stuff that's nowhere to be found in Rings, short of a few fleeting barroom respites shared among the hobbits. And yet, while keeping things comparatively light, Jackson doesn't present The Hobbit as some puerile, inferior work. He succeeds at making Smaug seem like a very foreboding threat, and he doesn't skimp on Middle-earth's ever-momentous warfare, finding many opportunities to inject the film with awesome spectacle. Further entwining the events of his Tolkien adaptations, Jackson uses flashback to illustrate Thorin's past fight to save his homeland, in a sweeping sequence that recalls man's initial defeat of Sauron, as narrated by Galadriel in the Fellowship prologue. And just as it plumbed the depths of Moria 11 years ago, the director's limitless camera thrillingly navigates the bowels of the Goblin King's lair, where, among other things, a much-beloved motion-capture marvel awaits.
The Rings trilogy has taken a lot of flack for its installments' chunky running times, and at 169 minutes, The Hobbit is bound to endure the same criticisms. But, again, it's hard to think of another cinematic land so ceasingly equipped for viewer investigation, always urging one to wonder what's around the next corner. It's a symbiotic, self-sustaining virtue, one that keeps the audience enthralled enough to stick around through the slower portions, and one that allows the films themselves to take their time with plot and characterization, yielding that trademark story richness to match the epic depth of atmosphere. Though in full effect during The Hobbit's opening act, which is in no rush at all to leave the Shire, this merit is best displayed in the scene that sees Bilbo meet Gollum (Andy Serkis) for the first time, after one of many impossible tumbles down a glistening, cavernous ravine. Visualizing the entirety the pair's riddle-filled exchange, which most viewers will likely remember as a vivid chunk of their elementary-school reading, Jackson is utterly painstaking as he stages the segment, his only diversion the occasional cutaway to the simultaneous travails of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves. If ever the pace seems trying, the circumstances quickly regain their fascination, and with the fate of the Ring of Power hanging in the balance, the unhurried stretch becomes riveting. The weight of the scenario well established, it's yet more evidence that the piece works better post-Rings.
With these films, Jackson turns small gestures into indispensable movie magic. One really can't overstate the power of McKellen's wise narration, and the emotional swell it conjures when paired with that ethereal Middle-earth-ian glow, which Jackson resurrects for many shots in The Hobbit. Ultimately, it's hugely comforting to return to this world, which fights the tireless threat of cynicism, on screens and beyond. And, as always, it's a technological triumph that celebrates natural, analog joys. These characters may all be out to save their homes in some fashion, but as Gandalf tells Bilbo, much like a modern parent would their wired-in kid, life is not inside your house, but waiting outside your door.