Reviewer: Charity Bishop
I remember well my first journey into Middle-earth, at the side of my dad when The Fellowship of the Ring opened. I hadn't read the books, nor knew much about it... and those two and a half hours changed my life forever. Returning to a new set of Middle-earth films is like going home and realizing how much you've missed being there. From the warm green hills of the Shire to the darkness of orc-infested mines, for a Tolkien fan or even for a newcomer, this is an epic tale about very small heroes.
Years ago, the dwarves were driven from their mountain home by a great dragon. The future king, Thorin (Richard Armitage) desires to reclaim the lost treasure and kingdom, in the hope that the dragon is dead. He and his merry band (thirteen in all) are in need of small hands and a stout heart... which the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) believes can be found in Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit from the Shire. Hobbits are quiet folk and not at all inclined to embark on great adventures... but this one does, and before he knows it, he is asked to put aside his numerous fears and become a hero.
Eyebrows raised when it was announced that this short children's novel was being fleshed out into three films. Fans and critics alike are divided on whether or not this is necessary and even if this first film is a success. In my opinion, it's another masterpiece, a chance to enter this beautiful and dangerous world anew -- or possibly, for some, for the very first time. There is so much to delight Tolkien fans, from the opening words of the novel making their way into our hero's mouth to seeing events unfold and pave the way for the prequel series. Here is our chance to meet Gandalf for the first time! To witness the true majesty and wisdom of the elves! And to see the dwarves as much more than gruff, somewhat under-appreciated characters. Each comes to life with charm and in some cases, instant likability -- Thorin and Balin shine the most but one and all worm their way into our hearts.
It's surprisingly moving to return to familiar places before later events unfold, and delightful to see a blend of new and "old" faces. Since this is based on a children's story, the humor is more apparent and yet changes and additions give it weight and gravity, hints of what is to come in later installments. The inclusion of the wizard Radagast (a delightfully eccentric Sylvester McCoy) is ingenious, and early whispers of the Witch-King delightfully fierce. One of the loveliest things is the musical score, which incorporates variations on the second dwarf song as a theme for them all. Some changes and additions have been made, but in my opinion they further illuminate Tolkien's wonderful world rather than detract from it. The cast is also wonderful.
If I had any complaint it would be the orcs are now CGI rather than actors, but I never found this distracting. Some have found the higher frame rate problematic and it's true that even in 2D, for some it has the potential to give headaches, but the depth, richness, and clarity it offers the big screen is exquisite. If you are a fan of the franchise, you'll love this excuse to delve back into Middle-earth, and if you have never met these characters before, it's a wonderful introduction to them. Just take me along!
Orcs are beheaded, stabbed, slashed, and impaled.
Drinking. Smoking. Belching.