Slate sent two staffers who’d never read a J.R.R. Tolkien book or seen more than a few minutes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to see The Hobbit. Note: Spoilers galore below, insofar as our intrepid viewers understood what was going on. For a more informed, less spoilery take, read Dana Stevens’ review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
BEFORE THE MOVIE
EY: Katy, we were told to do no research, but as I was looking at the movie listings I accidentally learned something: The Hobbit is the start of a trilogy. But what, then, is The Lord of the Rings? I thought that was a trilogy about Hobbits. Are there two trilogies about these creatures?
KW: I think you are correct that there are two trilogies about Hobbits. Maybe some of the Hobbits possess rings, and others don’t? Perhaps we will be watching the ring-less Hobbits in The Hobbit. What else do you know about this species? They have big, hairy feet and pointy ears, no? And they live in homey little grottos and drink lots of ale?
EY: I saw about 15 minutes of The Lord of the Rings—at least I think that’s what it was. I don’t know which one my husband rented, and it put me into a catatonic state. All I remember are those big hairy feet—are they born with built-in Birkenstocks?—and maybe some pointy ears. I assume Hobbits themselves are not all virgins, but are there any female Hobbits? There must be, right? Otherwise no little Hobbits.
KW: I have also seen a tiny bit of The Lord of the Rings—at a middle school sleepover. Everyone shrieked when Orlando Bloom showed up and then I fell asleep. I would not mind being a female Hobbit if all the Hobbits looked like Orlando Bloom, but as I recall he was the only cute one. And I don’t remember any lady characters at all—unless the mud people that kept attacking the heroes were supposed to be female?
EY: I think we should each bring a Red Bull to this movie. And I wish I were going with a Hobbit whisperer, who would clue me in on what I’m sure to miss, and give me an elbow to the ribs if I start to drift off.
KW: A Hobbit whisperer would be fabulous! Especially because I gather that there are many different languages in Middle Earth, and he could translate. I know that Tolkien invented a dialect called Elvish, for instance, which suggests that there are elves in this land, too. Are they even smaller than Hobbits? Is everyone short in this realm? I would fit right in!
EY: You and I could be Slate Hobbits, because Slate for some reason has a lot of really tall people. I wish I knew what Tolkien calls the really tall people in Hobbit-land. I know there’s a Gollum, which I always assumed was a reference to the Jewish legend of Golem, but might not be. Is he good or bad? And there’s a Gandolf, right? Who obviously should be played by James Gandolfini.
KW: Gollum rings a bell: He’s the one who says “my preciousssss,” although I’m not sure why. (I am fairly certain he is not Jewish.) And whenever Tolkien comes up in a crossword puzzle, the answer is ENT, so there’s an ENT in there somewhere. Bad guys, too, presumably, who are definitely not Hobbits. I think they are disembodied burning eyes? Or weather conditions? The Hobbit villain is called Smog, apparently.
EY: The Hobbit is sure to have a lot of unpleasant confrontations with bad creatures—all of which will come as a surprise to us, Katy, and probably only to us. It’s exciting to think that next time we talk we will be experts on all this—as long as we don’t fall asleep!
AFTER THE MOVIE
KW: Emily! We have both just lost our Tolkien virginity. And while I can’t say I am fluent in moon runes, I do feel like I understand the lay of the land a little. Middle Earth is full of creatures! And so many of them are short, with tuberous noses.
EY: It was a perilous journey full of heart-stopping twists and no guarantee of arrival: I’m speaking of my attempt to find the IMAX theater and get a parking space. I did it, but missed the first five minutes of what seemed like an endless prologue. Did I miss an explanation of what the Ring is and why it’s so powerful?
KW: That boring prologue was a necessary evil—I would have been as lost as Bilbo in the mountain labyrinth without it—but it didn’t explain the Ring, which as far as I can tell confers invisibility on the wearer? Does it do anything else? Gollum seemed quite attached to it, but maybe in the way magpies love glittery things. And most of the characters in this movie seem obsessed with gold—possibly so they can afford to play golf, which evidently exists on Middle Earth.
EY: I didn’t find the journey particularly compelling, did you? It seemed less art than art direction. I liked the Hieronymus Bosch reference when they were all captive in some hellish place run by creatures whose names I can’t remember. But I found the score—one of those old-fashioned ones in which every second has a musical cue telling you what to feel—to be more intrusive than even the 3-D effects.
KW: Which Bosch-like scene of captivity do you mean? There were so many! First the ogres who wanted to roast the dwarves over a campfire and then the nasties with the goitered king—were they Oags, too, like the Pale Oag, or goblins? There was also a more benevolent imprisonment, by the elves. Anyway, I was not swept away by the quest, either. The movie’s small pleasures were a mix of atmospheric and … taxonomic, I guess: All those species to classify and lands to map and histories to learn. I found the fight scenes super-tedious, especially that interminable sequence with the rock giants.
EY: Mostly I didn’t understand who the movie is for. It’s not for kids—there are too many grotesque, wart-covered, slavering beings getting their heads and limbs loped off. But what adult wants to sit through this? It soon became clear that no matter what happens, Bilbo Baggins and pals would come out just fine with the help of Ian McKellen’s wizard magic. I kept thinking that they should just use the magic to get them to their destination and cut out all the interim unpleasantness.
KW: As for who should see this movie, I’m guessing Tolkien fans of any age: I can’t imagine a child or an adult going through the ordeal of The Hobbit without prior affection for this elaborate world. The wizard magic was such a boring, nick-of-time failsafe device, and apparently dwarves can be chewed in half and battered with rocks and sent into 60-foot free falls and emerge utterly unharmed.
EY: For goodness sake, even Bambi’s mother got killed! If they’d been willing to off a few dwarves it would have supplied a little tension. But in The Hobbit there was an endless dreary rhythm of marching ahead, nasty confrontation, marching ahead. I kept wishing Bilbo could return to his little Hobbit home, which had the charm of a miniature Downton Abbey. I would have been much happier with a cozy Hobbit drama set there.
KW: Bilbo’s Hobbit hole was lovely and tasteful. I felt terrible for him when all those rowdy dwarves barged in and obliterated his pantry! I was also distracted by the fact that some of the dwarves had comical, bulbous faces and others looked relatively normal and human. Does that happen with age? And what did you make of our chief warrior-dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield? Son of blah blah blah.
EY: I thought Martin Freeman as Bilbo pulled off a nicely understated performance, but the rest of them were hokey and broad. The comedy didn’t make me laugh, but the pretentiously serious delivery of the made-up languages did. And I’ll blame Peter Jackson for the performances of the normally fabulous Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. I guess elves—who are not diminutive!—are supposed to be ethereal and otherwordly. It just seemed like they were stoned on Percocet.
KW: +1 on the inappropriate laughter! I laughed out loud at the solemn shot of the Elvish king gazing down on everyone from his moose. But I enjoyed Cate Blanchett—and not just because she was one of the few women to grace an almost three-hour sausage fest. Her ESP exchange with Gandalf was one of the few moments of humor that didn’t rely on dwarves being loud or trolls being gross. As for Hugo Weaving, he did a great job portraying an inanimate object, albeit one that looks very impressive on a horse!
EY: Thanks for reminding me of the fact that in this entire world there are virtually no females. Give me a break that all epic, heroic deeds are done by males. That highly annoyed me. Also annoying was the ending—there isn’t one! You’re just being set up for the next movie in this series. It starts with that endless, droning prologue, and then it turns out the entire two hours and 45 minutes of The Hobbit is a prologue for the next over-orchestrated fight fest. However many are planned, I’ve had my curiosity sated and will happily skip the next.