The Hobbit: … and back again

When the animated special of the The Hobbit aired in 1977, I had just turned five.  I had also already seen it, because my father worked in advertising and hand, in fact, worked on the campaign for it.  During that time, I had spent months of weekends  and evenings at his office watching the film projected onto a conference room wall as he worked on his comps.  We would sing along with the warg song (“Fifteen Birds“) together, and my father would speak to me, for hours, in Gollum’s voice.  He was very good at it, and I was sort of strangely proud that Gollum was my friend.

All of which means that as much as I knew, long before the reviews started, that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was likely to be a lesser film than those of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was probably more excited for this trilogy than that one.

Don’t get me wrong, I really loved the LoTR films, and as someone who isn’t a Tolkein purist (I often wish I could be, but my mind and my patience for The Simarillion simply doesn’t work that way), that was easy to do.  But most of that love was came not in response to the story, the monsters or the protagonists, but in response to the incredibly rich and specific film vocabulary Peter Jackson and company developed to tell those stories.

That vocabulary is returned to us fully in The Hobbit, from the genius of Howard Shore’s musical themes to the writhing, Bosch-like plains of flesh that make up the film’s many battle scenes.  The importance of story within story, the impact of history, and the relentless hero shots and speeches of great men (and dwarves and elves) also remain, driving the pace and coding characters not as people but as symbols.

It’s desperately heightened, in a way that is almost overlooked because how can you have the reality part of “heightened reality” with such unreal things as orcs and storm giants and wargs?

Of course, The Hobbit as a novel does have a somewhat different tone than The Lord of the Rings.  It’s funnier.  It’s lighter. Its dangers are more wondrous and more easily escaped.  The film, in turn, utterly acknowledges this in its own tone and construction while not compromising on the visual, audio, and narrative vocabulary established for The Lord of the Rings films.

And that’s where, it seems, the mainstream professional reviews seem to be ill at ease with what was served up on screen.  The vocabulary Jackson uses is weighty, epic, and arguably bombastic, and for many critics the extension of that vocabulary to what is traditionally a children’s book doesn’t seem to sit quite right.

Of course, as a four year old who spent hours and hours singing the warg song with my father, I knew then and know now that stories for kids can often do with being as epic, dramatic, and, yes, bombastic, as stories for grownups.

Technically, The Hobbit trilogy probably won’t be as good as The Lord of the Rings trilogy if the first film is anything to go on.  And I avoided, with great effort, seeing either the 3D version (it gives me headaches) or the 48fps version because my eyes have been trained to find their moving-going truth in the softer illusions of perfection generated by 24fps, so I can’t comment on what that does, or doesn’t, add to the experience.

But if you love Peter Jackson’s cinematic vocabulary, or just the idea of cinematic vocabularies in general, The Hobbit is a treat.  It’s also joyously nostalgic.  Coming out of the theater every overheard conversation seemed to be about people’s first encounters with the story and how that tied into their response to the film.

However, my perhaps favorite moment was that even as the film lacked a warg song, it did have several others, and everyone seemed to be singing them as they left the theater. This included a trio of well-harmonized strangers who couldn’t seem to stop themselves from slipping into “The Misty Mountains” while in the ladies bathroom stalls after a screening last night in New York’s East Village.

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