The Hobbit has officially joined the ranks of franchises like Star Wars that are so eagerly anticipated that they suffocate under the weight of audience expectations. So far, critical responses to The Hobbit have been terrible, and I think at least fifty percent of the hate is coming from people's outrage that this movie isn't roasting them with lightning bolts of awe the way the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. But nothing is ever going to be quite like Lord of the Rings again, so it should really be no surprise to anybody that The Hobbit isn't either. Get over it.
If you can unpack your overfilled backpack of hype-saturated expectations, you'll find that The Hobbit is a fun movie, if occasionally cheesy. It also has one thing that Lord of the Rings never did: A story that is human-scale, even if it's about hobbits and dwarves. This a war movie, about the kinds of conflicts that exist on our Earth as well as Middle Earth. And it offers a hope that Lord of the Rings never does, which is that ordinary creatures can solve their problems with cleverness and fellowship, rather than supernatural intervention on a cosmic scale. What I'm saying is that despite the hype and budget, The Hobbit is in many ways a very humble movie about the horrific effects of war on ordinary people. And that's how to appreciate it.
One thing you'll notice about The Hobbit right away is that it does not give you the I've-never-seen-this-before shivers of the Lord of the Rings movies. That's because part of what director Peter Jackson and his designers aimed to do was bring you back to all your favorite places and characters without changing much. Perhaps if Guillermo del Toro had directed the movie, which is what Jackson had originally planned, we'd be seeing a very different world. But you'll immediately be struck by how samey everything feels, from Rivendell to Hobbiton, and from Gandalf's way of calling his giant eagle friends to Saruman's nasty lust for power. We even see Frodo and the elder Bilbo again, before plunging into the tale of Bilbo's "unexpected journey" that brought the Ring out of the darkness while Sauron rose from the grave.
What The Hobbit has that Lord of the Rings never did is a set of protagonists with relatable motivations and worldly goals. From the instant we meet Bilbo (played with a light touch by Martin Freeman), it feels like we're watching a story that's about people rather than forces that no earthly individual or army could ever hope to comprehend, let alone defeat. And that is a sheer pleasure. There is something deeply satisfying about watching Bilbo transform from a nervous homebody to a brave and clever hero. The dwarves, too, have nothing but earthly motives for their quest.
Sixty years ago, Smaug the dragon destroyed the dwarves' beautiful underground city, driving them into a diaspora that left them impoverished and homeless. Thorin Oakenshield's grandfather, then the dwarf king, tried to lead his people to a new home in another dwarf city, the abandoned mines of Moria (which we visited in the first trilogy). But group was attacked by orcs led by the infamous "white orc." The white orc killed the king, and only Thorin stood up to him, cutting off the white orc's arm and leaving him for dead. Now, Thorin has brought some of his remaining band back together to take their original home back from Smaug. On a wizardy whim, Gandalf brings Bilbo along to act as a burglar. Along the way, however, the party discovers that the white orc didn't die, and wants Thorin's head.
The white orc is motivated partly by pure animal revenge, and partly by the half-risen Sauron, who is just starting to gain power in the world again after millennia as a disembodied spirit. So there are really two interwoven stories in The Hobbit. One is the worldly tale of people who want revenge, who want a home, and who want to find themselves by joining a good cause. And the other is the budding spiritual story we see played out Lord of the Rings, where wizard-angels and elf-immortals try to wrest control of Middle Earth away from evil deities and gods.
There is much to enjoy in the worldly story. I mentioned Bilbo's character arc earlier, which is both believable and occasionally quite funny. His encounter with Gollum is far richer and more complex than any of the interplay we saw between Frodo and Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In a sense, Gollum is what Bilbo might have become if he'd stayed home with his books instead of joining Gandalf and Thorin on their journey. Gollum never leaves the safety of his underground caves, and spends all his time distracted by the stories he spins out in conversation with his "Precious," the Ring. The Ring-obsessed creature emerges as a genuinely dangerous, yet sympathetic character — and Bilbo becomes a true hero after rejecting his urge to kill the creature who was once a human like himself.
Thorin and the dwarves' quest allows Jackson to tell what amounts to a war story in the middle of his epic fantasy tale. This is entirely appropriate, given that J.R.R. Tolkien was haunted by memories of what he saw in World War I for most of his life, and channeled some of those experiences into the bloody battles of his novels. Smaug is a horrific and superior military force who has left the dwarves with nothing but pride in their heritage. And they want to take back what the dragon has stolen from them. At one point, Bilbo realizes exactly what's at stake for the dwarves — "I have a home and you don't," he says simply.
In this way, the dwarves come to resemble many groups who have been consigned to wander as homeless refugees in the wake of horrific defeat. As I watched their tale unfold, I could help but think of the angry letter Tolkien sent to a group of German publishers in 1938 who wanted to translate The Hobbit, but only if Tolkien would assure them that he had an Aryan heritage. Not only had they misused the word Aryan, he told them wrathfully, but he had many Jewish friends and wanted no part of their "pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine."