Nearly all doubts about Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” which has received much early derision for its perhaps-excessive extension into a trilogy, quickly diminish within mere moments of the first installment’s duration, which feels surprisingly nimble through the whopping span of 169 minutes.
With almost a decade having passed since “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy wrapped, it’s been easy for one to forget the enveloping magic of Jackson’s Middle Earth. In “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” that magic comes rushing back in earnest, so much so that “Rings” fans will feel the welcome warmth of a long-vacant void filling up.
Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved book, the film kicks off the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the furry-footed uncle of “Rings” hero Frodo (Elijah Wood), whose adventure would come some 60 years after this far more frolicsome prequel. Yet, rather than hew very closely to the text, Jackson and his returning team of wizards opt to tell a tangential tale, both branching off of, and setting the scene for, Frodo and company’s forthcoming saga. It’s simply another adventure in the land of elves and orcs, where near-unparalleled cinematic wonder awaits.
Back on the screen are Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), whose liberal inclusion points to the troubles ahead. There’s also a lively crew of dwarves, led by heroic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), whose people must reclaim their home from the dreaded dragon Smaug.
It’s readily apparent why the “Hobbit” films could not have been made first, before the “Rings” films enchanted the world, and before fantasy and musical numbers were firmly back in vogue. The dwarves are jovial folk that require a bit more patience from the audience, and their penchant for song may well have been scoffed at in the pre-“Glee” era.
But with Jackson’s fanbase firmly established, this new sojourn is wonderfully embraceable, even if it isn’t quite the masterful spectacle of its predecessors. Once again, Jackson casts a widescreen spell that feels singular and essential.
Three-and-a-half reels out of four
Opens tomorrow in area theaters
Available Dec. 21
Though it disappointingly adheres to some tired plot conventions, Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” sees the master auteur return to his Brooklyn roots, in a way that recalls his magnum opus, “Do the Right Thing.” Telling of an Atlanta teen (Jules Brown) spending the summer with his grandfather (Clarke Peters), the film deftly explores a generational divide, where religion, idealism and modernity merge, and can hopefully coexist with some semblance of understanding. A divisive flick, but essential for Lee fans.
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