If you promised that, in some distant future, the Grim Reaper would delay his visit to me by two hours and forty-nine minutes, the running time of director Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” I might not feel so put out by its indulgent length. While splendid in several ways, the rewards narrowly outdistance its daunting duration.
Point of disclosure: Never a big fan of alternate universe fiction, I much prefer my metaphors domestically sourced. Still, this is reasonably good stuff if you’re a fan of J.R. Tolkien’s original works and have the requisite time to imbibe the seemingly endless details and minutiae that went into the famed author’s construction of his Middle-earth.
For the uninitiated, that’s where the writer set the majority of his Odyssey-like adventures. Virtual mini pageants about nations, civilizations and the cultural motivations that both form and destroy them, replete with the maxims of history, they consist of a prose unto itself. This means whole different tongues to learn, if you’re of a mind.
In this installment, which will spawn at least two follow-ups from the filmmaker, the acknowledged interpreter extraordinaire of things Tolkien suffuses the silver screen with the panoply of beings who populate those fictional worlds. Hence, we are first introduced to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, the title character, who relates his tale in flashback.
Following a visit from Gandalf, a wizard convincingly portrayed by Ian McKellen, Bilbo’s storybook cottage is invaded by a horde of dwarves who, after eating just about everything he had in his larder, invoke his help to regain their homeland. Gandalf has assured them that Hobbits are great burglars, a necessary element to achieving said goal.
Well, this dubious skill is heretofore unknown to the inveterate homebody, who has grown quite content in his life of books, cushy armchair and garden. But Gandalf rails at Bilbo’s bourgeois reluctance, and reminds him of the brave and illustrious Hobbit heritage that has made his comfy lifestyle possible. Naturally, the adventure is soon afoot.
What follows is a seemingly endless rollercoaster ride through all manner of strange and foreboding lands, each informing of yet another set of mores and folkways that must be learned if one is to safely traverse them. I won’t go through the whole gaggle of creatures we encounter, but will state that some are pretty good folks, once you grok their meaning.
But evildoers make up the majority. Trolls comprise a society of murder, mayhem and disdain for all that is good. Orcs are pretty nasty, too. In this episode, that bodes quite badly as Thorin (Richard Armitage), Gandalf’s pick to lead the mission, has been reviled ever since chopping off the Orc king’s hand, supposedly leaving him for dead. Wrong!
While some of these species speak what we hear as English, most of them have their own languages and dialects. But no need to bring along your Middle-earth dictionary unless you don’t put much stock in subtitles. And don’t worry about telling the good guys from the scum. With few politically correct exceptions, the uglier, the more nefarious.
Note at this juncture, however, that as I am among the great unwashed, my review will be and should be besides the point to diehard Hobbit tifosi. Doubtless, sources hip to Hobbit lore will hash out its authenticity ad nauseam. My quest through these eccentric climes is to conclude whether the general viewing public will find the film entertaining.
Thus, on the one hand, there is adventure aplenty, great colorful landscapes and smart, whimsically delivered moral lessons, provided the casual traveler can pick up on enough of the jive without feeling left out of the club. And therein lies the rub. With endless allusion to Hobbit obscurities, one can’t help feel the secret handshake is being withheld.
It occurs that patience is the quality most required by those inclined to drink in the vast glossary of information comprising Mr. Tolkien’s grand creation. Yet, as the twelve-year-old me could spend hours poring over the library of comic books in Norman Ginsberg’s basement, I can see this holding a similar aura for today’s adolescent and littérateur alike.
Impressive characterizations both by the protagonists and the motley crew of ancillary beings not only help create the epochal atmosphere, but are often interesting in and of themselves. Of course we identify with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, our ordinary Hobbit placed in extraordinary circumstances. And as Wizards go, Mr. McKellen is masterly.
But geez, 169 minutes? I’m just getting over “Reds” (1981), which, at three hours and fifteen minutes might be a good enough diversion if you’re roasting an 18 pound turkey, unstuffed, mind you. While aficionados will say that devotion knows no end, others who take in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will worry that the film doesn’t have one.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Peter Jackson and stars Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage. Running time: 169 minutes
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