I have never been a Lord of the Rings fanatic, so take that into account, but The Hobbit made me miss Voldemort. I spent a fair amount of time during Peter Jackson’s latest installment in his Tolkien franchise comparing it to the Harry Potter movies, thinking how savvy J.K. Rowling’s approach to magic has been, how successful in the broadest way those films are.
Potter has wizards and muggles, recognizably human and accessible; Voldemort is the visibly monstrous exception, and scarier for it. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey lives, quite deliberately, in its own hermetic world. That’s not a bad thing if you like hermetic worlds like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and other myth-filled vacuum-sealed geekfests. For the rest of us, thank goodness The Hobbit has Martin Freeman, who makes Bilbo Baggins a feeling person and a strange-footed Hobbit at the same time. He is the best part of the film.
Apart from Freeman, there are so many monsters and sword fights, so much dwarf-instigated mayhem that The Hobbit plays like a kiddie movie. Tolkien did write it as a children’s book, after all, but that’s not quite what the Lord of the Rings legions might expect.
The film is visually ambitious, as Jackson would be the first to tell you, although it doesn’t improve on 3D. (And there are some occasional, distracting deep-focus issues; really, 3-D can make you dizzy enough without that.) The screen and the story are crowded with picture-book colored creatures. When the dragon Smaug usurps the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, the brave Lord Thorin Oakenshield -- Richard Armitage, with a fierce glare and flowing, gray-streaked dark hair – fights to regain his realm. How? That’s where kindly old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes in, to recruit the unsuspecting homebody Bilbo. (Gandalf might be at home in Hogwarts; Rowling does owe something to Tolkien.)
In a comic set-piece, dwarves arrive before him, invading Bilbo’s cottage, tossing around his mother’s fine china. Gandalf appears and says Bilbo is just the burglar they need, although his meaning only becomes clear toward the end .
As they all trek off on their adventure to reclaim Erebor, Jackson throws everything at us except flying monkeys. There are birds, vicious wolves (called Wargs) big enough to ride, Stone Giants who fight like oversized toy robots (actually a very cool effect when the dwarves cling to different boxing giants.) They meet a super-jowly Goblin King (voiced by Barry Humphries; yes, he’s also Dame Edna). The screenplay stops now and then to drop in some healthy bit of wisdom from Gandalf, such as: "True courage is about knowing not when to take a life but when to spare one." In case LOTR fans get restless, there’s a quick detour to visit Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Galadriel and Elrond.
And there is Gollum (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Maybe I’m alone on this, but a tiny bit of Gollum goes a veeery long way. (I always want to tell him: stop hissing at me!) The small bit of him you get here - he has a climactic, story-changing confrontation with Bilbo – felt like an eternity. You get the point: I’m not a fan.
In the end The Hobbit, like Life of Pi, seems so awed with its own technical ingenuity that character and narrative fade into the distance. Freeman breathes some life into all this CGI, partly because Bilbo faces the most human struggles. Stepping outside his comfy house to help the dwarves, learning he’s braver than he thought, he’s an adorable, occasionally irascible hero. But can he lure us into this nearly three-hour fantasy? Let’s just say he’s no Harry Potter.