Okay, everybody, the tea break is over: Time to emerge from your hobbit hole. Nine years after the completion of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson has returned, as if he never left, to the imaginary territory he clearly loves as much as his homeland New Zealand. With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson is back in Middle-earth for author J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel, set 60 years before LOTR. A colorful yarn spun with children in mind, it’s the tale of the hobbit named Bilbo Baggins and his grand adventure with 13 dwarf acquaintances (and assorted elves and trolls) to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor. Off they go, the mini bearded gents and young Bilbo, who’s played with sprightly charm by that splendid BBC Office worker Martin Freeman.
Devoted followers will recall that Ian Holm embodied Old Bilbo in LOTR. He was the hairy-footed fellow of passing interest — the uncle of that saga’s central character, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). Frodo, you remember, had this ring he needed to return … But never mind, even the unfaithful who can’t tell Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey from that other wizard guy in Harry Potter can follow along easily in this teeming prequel. Working from a simpler, jauntier, more picaresque story about how Bilbo came to possess the One Ring that would later cause such a rumpus, Jackson operates with even more unrelenting genius-nerd filmmaking intensity. If that’s possible. He plays with extra-super-duper high-frame-rate 3-D technology that makes every detail of Bilbo’s home in Hobbiton sparkle with almost disconcerting smoothness of surface. He makes orcs rampage and stone giants heave mountains at one another, and he dwells especially lovingly on all those dwarves: Balin and Dwalin and Fili and Kili and especially the Dwarf Lord Thorin (Richard Armitage).
So far so good, in a kind of obsessive, CGI-glittering way. But even the prettiest and geekiest dramatization can start to tire out a fond devotee of Jackson’s LOTR like me. Then there’s the prospect of still two more episodes of presumably equal length, and more excellence in dwarf prosthetics. Yet just as I felt I was hitting a Middle-earth wall, out pops a savior to remind the faithful of what we loved about LOTR in the first place. I’m talking, of course, about the great Gollum — described by Tolkien as a ”small, slimy creature” and ”as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.” Animated by CGI wizardry laid over Oscar-worthy physical and vocal work by Andy Serkis, this magnificently creepy, tortured thing makes his appearance deep into the picture. And from the minute his two big round pale eyes meet Bilbo’s — and ours — The Hobbit gets a second wind that lofts this chapter to the finish line.
The pair meet in Gollum’s cave, when Bilbo wanders away from the frantic scramble of all those tumbling dwarves. And there the two take the measure of each other in a tense game of riddles with much at stake. The intimate duet between Serkis-as-Gollum and Freeman-as-Bilbo is the high point of the movie. It’s also the moment the whole enterprise makes sense — not only in Bilbo’s fate-changing acquisition of a gold ring previously in Gollum’s anxious care (which is, no spoiler, the story’s huge, game-changing event), but also in the journey that Jackson and his team have set for themselves. Tolkien’s full title is The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. I’m holding the filmmaker responsible for getting us all back again — to feelings of excitement and delight. Vital as they are, Gollum and Bilbo can only do so much to keep us enchanted. Is Jackson able to sustain the magic in two more installments? I peer into Tolkien’s Misty Mountains and embrace the journey. B+