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There and not quite back again…

            There are a lot of things to like about the first episode of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, and most of them are Martin Freeman. If you are a fan of the BBC “Sherlock” series you know him as the wryly amusing and fanatically loyal Doctor Watson. Casting him as the young Bilbo Baggins was an inspired move, though neither he nor Elijah Wood as Frodo are stout enough for hobbits.

            When Freeman’s Bilbo is involved in situations that are directly adapted from the book he is brilliantly entertaining as well as authentically hobbit-like: slightly smug and at the same time self-deprecating, usually good-natured but easily exasperated. Unfortunately Jackson, in his rush to expand the charming (and short) children’s book into an epic that matches his earlier Tolkien films, has not capitalized on the talents of his lead actor, reducing him in many cases to a walk-on presence.

            There is only one full-scale battle in Tolkien’s book: the Battle of the Five Armies, that provides the Big Finish, and which is carefully prepared for throughout the narrative. There are however lots of skirmishes and confrontations and hair’s-breadth escapes, which Jackson has expanded into interminable full-scale battles. The results will please twelve-year-old boys who look on Middle Earth as a vast video game, but be less welcome to readers who remember the book as a charming tale with unexpected depths.

            The older Bilbo (the welcome Ian Holm) does get to say “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” but not until we’ve had a ten-minute prologue that explains the backstory of the Dwarvish kingdom of Erebor and its destruction by the dragon Smaug, which shows us a lot of spectacular CGI sets and action. Jackson seems to be telling us that it’s all right to fidget during Tolkien’s original opening, because there’ll be lots of big exciting stuff later.

            Ironically, it’s the scenes of the Unexpected Party at Bag End that prove the most  entertaining of the movie, because they come close to catching the author’s impish humor. Bilbo’s increasingly appalled reaction to the appearance of Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves on his doorstep becomes even funnier as they make themselves at home and raid his larder to set a groaning table. The dwarves even get to sing bits of two of their songs, which is a delight, as songs are integral to Tolkien’s storytelling, and fantasy flicks rarely take the time for musical numbers.

            Once Thorin and Company hit the road, however, the battles don’t take long in coming, from an extended set-to with the trolls to an unending chase through the goblin caves that’s meant to out-do the Fellowship’s troubles in Moria, and just ends up making us wonder how dwarves and hobbits can fall hundreds of feet without breaking every bone in their little bodies.

            One particularly bruising fall lands Bilbo in Gollum’s grotto, where his riddle game with the pathetic creature shows how good the storytelling can be when it sticks to the original, and puts its star to good use.

            There are problems with telling a story backwards, such as starting the exposition already knowing the significance of things that are being introduced. Since we’ve already wrestled with the big themes in the earlier movies, Jackson makes sure we continue to do so in this prequel (dreadful word) rather than learning about them in the order the author himself reveals them in the sequence of creation – or “sub-creation” as Tolkien calls it. Since everyone has seen “The Lord of the Rings” and knows how it ends, Jackson can assume that his current audience already knows the narrative weight of everything that occurs, so he can expand upon it as much as he likes. If we already know that Bilbo’s trinket is the One Ring, and Gollum the instrument of its destruction, then we’re free to add the meeting of the White Council, with Saruman and Galadriel, and a really premature appearance of the Witch King of Angmar. This adds all sorts of heavy-handed gloom to a narrative that Tolkien handles with the light touch of an able children’s author who, like any good story teller, lets the readers know what they need to know when they need to know it.

            Jackson and his scripters are tremendously proud of all the connections to “Lord of the Rings” they’ve discovered in “The Hobbit” and are determined to show us how smart they are by putting all of their discoveries on the screen, no matter how they interrupt the narrative, muddy the waters, or prolong the agony. They have expanded the screen-time of characters that are only mentioned in passing, or indeed are never mentioned at all except in the appendices. They have added another orcish subplot, which splits the focus but provides more fights. But even the near-constant fighting doesn’t equal the embarrassment of the scenes with Radagast the Brown.

            Perhaps subliminally aware that he has altered the book’s tone beyond recognition, Jackson has disastrously expanded the role of the forest wizard into that of a goofy clown, who with his dithering, his crossed eyes, and his team of Sled Bunnies comes near to being as dreadful as Jar Jar Binks.

            Still, I daresay even Tolkien purists will see the film  just out of curiosity, and they will find many of the visuals and some of the characters up to snuff; and the prospect of hearing Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Smaug,  chiefest and greatest of calamities, will be enough to bring us back for the remaining episodes.