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With those words J.R.R. Tolkien finished his novel The Hobbit, which he wrote from 1930 to 1932 and which, when published five years later, introduced the Middle-earth of Dwarves and Elves, humans and the tiny, hairy-footed Hobbits of the Shire to the world. By 1949 the Oxford don had finished a classic sequel, published in three chapters as The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955.
Without much doubt the great fantasy books of the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings in its film-trilogy version became the first fantasy movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Spurred by that success, together with his connection to the material and his eagerness to extend on the CGI artistry pioneered by his Weta Workshop, director-producer Peter Jackson made three feature-length movies of The Hobbit, ending with The Battle of the Five Armies. And now, 17 years after The Hobbit-shaped director launched his quest to bring Tolkien to the screen — and supervising two mammoth shooting schedules, each of 266 days — it’s over. “I’ve sort of done the once-in-a-lifetime experience twice,” Jackson said recently. “But not a third time. There won’t be a third time.”
The three Lord of the Rings movies (titled, like the novels, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King respectively) were vital, enthralling viewing. Jackson’s The Hobbit, on its own terms a satisfying rough cut of a very long great film, could only be an ornate codicil to the exciting endeavor of The Rings — however appealing the new franchise’ directorial vision, however robust its characters and tantalizing its emotions.
The plodding first act, An Unexpected Journey, released in 2012, was saved from terminal tedium by the encounter in which “Bilbo the Burglar” (Martin Freeman) steals the One Ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis). The trilogy sprang tardily to dramatic life with wondrous set pieces in The Desolation of Smaug: a gigantic spider attack on the Dwarves, the escape from the Elves’ castle down a fast-flowing river, the siege of the humans’ Lake-town and Bilbo’s climactic confrontation with Smaug. A dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) as marvelous as it is mighty, Smaug let Bilbo outsmart it when he slipped on the Ring and got away with the Dwarves’ most precious treasure, the Arkenstone.
In the new movie, Jackson and his screenwriting colleagues Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens begin with a Smaug alert. Getting away from his lair, the dragon flies to Lake-town for an epic blitzkrieg defended by the episode’s unsullied human hero Bard the Bowman (played by Luke Evans). The tragic figure here is the Dwarf king Thorin (a splendidly conflicted Richard Armitage) who, having recaptured his people’s ancestral cave of gold, is tainted and maddened by it. Asked by the Elf king Thrandull (Lee Pace) whether he will choose peace or war, Thorin exclaims, “I will have war!” and the five armies — Dwarves, Elves, men, Orcs and an unexpected fifth contingent — amass for a fight that consumes the last 45 minutes and almost matches The Two Towers in its wizardy visual choreography of sustained showdown. (All hail Serkis, absent as Gollum yet using his talents as second-unit director.)
Within the confines of a bustling war-movie — and, at 2hr.24min., by far the shortest film in either trilogy — Jackson is obliged to telegraph the moments of personal emotion. However, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) the Elf princess has time to make elevated love, and to go to war, alongside her Dwarf sweetheart Kili (Aidan Turner). And in an interlude back in the Elven kingdom, the magnificent Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) fights off an unwelcome spectral guest with the intervention of Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the still-beneficent Saruman (Christopher Lee, still royally charismatic at 92). So many plot lines need tying up, under the martial supervision of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), that the lone Hobbit is often in the background; at times you may ask, “Where’s Bilbo?” He proves his mettle and justifies the movies’ title by employing the resources of his heart and his cunning.
For all the craft and energy on display in Five Armies, few fanciers of the Ring cycle will mourn that, in Jackson’s words, “There won’t be a third time”: he means he will not try to wrestle a coherent tale out of Tolkien’s sprawling,
posthumously published The Silimarillion. Even Jackson’s longtime admirers might whisper “Thank goodness!” that the director of early splatter comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead, and the teen-girl murder romance Heavenly Creatures, can say farewell to reverent fantasy adaptations and return to his own job of subversive satire in tones either gross-out or surreal.
Some might even see this three-part Hobbit project as an example of the greed that Tolkien defined as the cardinal sin in both of his grand fables. Love of gold makes Thorin go insane; and the One Ring debases all those who keep or covet the gold. (The abiding lesson of both stories: baaad jewelry!) Remember that Jackson originally assigned Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) to helm The Hobbit, which was planned as just two films. Then Jackson took over; he wanted The Hobbit for himself, just as he had possessed the Ring movies, and he decided it would be three features. Tolkien initially divided The Lord of the Rings into six novels; if Jackson had carried more clout in the 90s, when he began working on the saga, we might have had a Ring sextet. (His sponsor, New Line Cinema, was already taking a $300-million risk in entrusting three features to a New Zealander with no hit movies on his résumé.)
If The Hobbit doesn’t equal the achievement of Jackson’s earlier Middle-earth movies— and, honestly, what could? — it is still, in sum, a thrilling effort, perhaps standing behind only Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as the most impressive and intelligent multi-film action epic since The Lord of the Rings. As Gandalf might say: You are a very fine storyteller, Mr. Jackson, and we are most grateful for your Hobbit.
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