You Had Me At “Smaug’s Tail.”


(Update #2: I saw this again in IMAX 3D and did not enjoy it nearly as much. I’m so glad I saw this in 2D first because if I’d initially seen it in 3D I think I would have really been depressed. The tinted 3D glasses made everything seem dreary and dingy–even the stuff shot in the Shire. My eight-year-old son, however, LOVED it in 3D!)

(Update #1: Really disparate reactions to this blog and the film in general. People seem to either love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or they feel terribly disappointed. Some have even told me they think Peter Jackson has eviscerated their beloved book. Maybe you have to go into the theater expecting to hate it like I did? I keep remembering little things like the thrush cracking the snail. Anybody who has read The Hobbit will know the significance this scene has for the next film in the trilogy. It’s that kind of subtle detail that makes seeing this movie such a wonderful cinematic experience.)

I saw the movie today in the old school style—2D and 24 FPS. From the opening shot I felt like I was back in that brilliantly realized cinematic world of Middle-earth that so many of us fell in love with almost a dozen years ago. The colors, the feel, the music. It’s all the same as the first trilogy when you experience it at 24 frames per second. But I didn’t really discern the full force of the Wingnut Films movie/storytelling magic in this movie until that shot of Smaug’s fat Dragon tail snaking and flicking as it disappeared through the Gates of Erebor. I started laughing out loud. Not because I thought it was ridiculous. The total opposite. It was because it seemed so real. The little bits we saw of Smaug before this shot showed him to be a badass of monumental proportions (way scarier than the inane monsters in the preview for Pacific Rim that preceded the showing). Smaug’s tail whipping back and forth lazily, like a cat’s tail, as the Dragon sauntered into his new digs…it was just a beautiful and subtle bit of filmmaking.

Surprisingly, this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found myself laughing out loud every couple of minutes during the first part of the film. Martin Freeman has created a character that will become a classic in film history. He is Bilbo Baggins. And I’ll even go so far as to say (and go ahead and crucify me Tolkien purists) that his Bilbo is a way more interesting protagonist than Tolkien created in his book. From Bilbo’s “Good morning” bit with Gandalf, to his interactions with the Dwarves, to his Riddles In The Dark scene with Gollum (a scene that feels like you’re watching two pro-actors in the most awesome black box theatre production of The Hobbit ever staged!), Freeman manages something most actors never accomplish: he lets us see inside his head—see his thoughts—without resorting to pulling a bunch of stupid faces. He’s incredibly subtle in this story of mercy and friendship masquerading as an action-adventure flick. The guy just blew me away. The little vocal hitch he does in his line “I’m a Baggins…(errp) of Bag End” was so perfect. One of those wee miracles of acting that I’m certain he came up with on his own during takes. My god! This guy can even act with his back to the camera! When he wakes up the morning after the Dwarf-party and he’s all alone in his Hobbit-hole, staring down the hall toward the front door facing away from us, you can feel him thinking “Oh crap, what have I done? I need to go on this adventure!” And after he catches up with the Dwarves and realizes he doesn’t have his handkerchiefs and tries to make them all go back to Bag End to get them…so perfect. In the book he merely mentions he’s forgotten them. But in the movie he’s like, “Stop! We have to go back!” Ludicrously pompous. Totally Bilbo.

The Hobbit is a luxurious and beautiful film: the sparks floating out of the chimney at Bag End like magical fireflies, the overhead of Hobbiton as Bilbo races through yards and gardens to catch up with the Dwarves, the pine trees burning on the cliff’s edge…and that last shot of the heaps of gold in Erebor with Smaug shaking himself awake, then revealing his evil cat-like eye (which is basically how I predicted the movie would end in a blog I wrote over three months ago). And what about that scene where Thorin is striding off the felled pine tree, marching into the burning brush toward Azog? It was like a scene from the greatest opera ever staged! (Don’t you wish you could see an opera with Richard Armitage, Orcs and a Dragon? Hell, I’d go.) Should I mention the flight of the Eagles? We’ve seen this before, right? Gandalf’s rescue in The Fellowship of the Ring and Sam and Frodo lifted from the fires of Mount Doom at the end of The Return of the King. But it was way more awesome here. Spectacular. Crazy-ass-fantasy beautiful. That scene where they landed on The Carrock was perfect. And them all gazing across the Wilderlands toward Mount Doom far in the distance. I can’t wait for the next one!

By the way, I know there’s some stupid shit in this movie. Radagast’s bunny sled is simply asinine. But I didn’t care. And there were too many damned scenes with Dwarves and Bilbo on shifting ledges and Dwarves and Gandalf on shifting jerry-rigged goblin gangways and Dwarves and Bilbo and Gandalf on shifting pine trees. Enough with the 3D crap. It doesn’t need it. But still…I didn’t care.

I haven’t had this much fun at a move since…well…since my wife and I got the director’s cut for The Return of the King. And that’s what was so special about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It felt like we were treated to the director’s cut in the theater. I loved hearing the two-minute-long ode to Erebor! I loved the fact we got to see that cool flashback to the Dwarf/Orc battle! (The Battle of Azanulbizar–thanks for this factoid, Tolkien Britta!) I was amazed at how long the scene with the trolls went on. I relished every second of it. And when Gandalf appears and cracks that massive rock with his staff—splits in twain—to conveniently let the rising sun shine forth, thus turning the trolls to stone, I gasped with surprise! That’s movie magic. The writers took a scene from the book and added a clever little twist. “What if the sun were behind the rock. It’s going to be another ten minutes until it’s high enough to shine on the trolls. What would Gandalf do?” Answer: “He’d split the friggin’ rock right down the middle.” Praise to the screenwriters for this cool idea!

I have to say something about the actors. Richard Armitage turns what could have been a stuffy asshole of a character into someone deep and troubled and full of yearning. And James Nesbitt, in what might have been a throwaway roll as the Dwarf-in-the-dorky-hat, turns the raunchily-named Bofur into a sweet yet wicked guy developing a budding friendship with Bilbo. Both Armitage and Nesbitt are rangy men—both over six feet tall. It’s a testament to the skill the filmmakers have achieved with scaling the actors that they appear squat and realistically Dwarfy (yeah, I know that’s not a word) next to Gandalf and the Elves.

I have to praise Andy Serkis for creating the most stunningly realized mo-cap character in the history of film. He should win an Academy Award for best supporting actor even though he’s only on screen for about twenty minutes in this movie. When he falls over after losing the riddle contest—just collapses on his side like a worn out toddler…brilliant! That’s not special effects. That’s acting, dammit!

Oh, and Ian McKellen? He is “Ass-Kicker The Grey” in this movie. Wonderful acting aside, he just plain kicks Orc-arse. The part where he launches the blue bomb in the Goblin King’s Cave was a better weapon than anything I’ve ever seen in a video game. And then he does some serious Orc-smiting. I also loved how they have him be this sort of sheepish guy when he’s sitting across from Saruman at the White Council meeting. It’s like the writers and Peter Jackson said “Gandalf is kind of an f-up at this stage in his life. He’s the Istari who’s always getting into trouble with grumpy Saruman who admonished him for his harebrained schemes.” Gandalf is like Harry Potter trying to get the Ministry of Magic to believe Voldemort is back. It’s hilarious. “Sauron is really coming back!” “Oh, come on Gandalf, he’s dead.” “I dunno, Saruman. We should go to Dol Guldur…Morgul blade…bad feeling…” (I also liked the way Galadriel is already suspicious of Saruman here and speaks to Gandalf one-on-one with her Elven mind-meld.)

Why are critics, for the most part, ripping this film apart? I don’t get it. The production design is stupendous (John Howe and Alan Lee–you guys are masters). I was enthralled. I laughed heartily, I got numerous chills, and I left the theater with a big smile on my face. Maybe the whole 48 FPS thing really is distracting. I don’t know. But I got to go to Middle-earth again, and it was my best trip yet.

Missing Wizards

For a perfect example of Tolkien’s wildly creative genius, one needs to look no further than the Istari—his Wizards.

What were the Istari exactly? Quite simply they were angelic creatures whose souls had been deposited into corporeal vessels—bodies resembling old men. Their memories of their lives in the Blessed Realm (from whence they had come) were virtually wiped from their minds, leaving only a dim recollection of their former divine selves and life amongst the demigods called the Valar.

Even though the Istari were created as old men, they aged very slowly. When Gandalf showed up at Bilbo’s door at the start of The Hobbit, he’d been living in Middle-earth for two thousand years. (No wonder he needed that staff!) The Istari were no “conjurors of cheap tricks,” however, as Gandalf said to Bilbo in a moment of anger after Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday party. They had been chosen by the Valar to come and serve the Free Peoples Middle-earth in their fight against the growing power of Sauron—the wicked servant of an even wickeder master named Morgoth (himself a fallen Vala).

The Istari were forbidden to reveal their true powers and were supposed to merely guide Men, Dwarves and Elves with good advice (and some occasional magic). And all of the Istari had been given free will to act in the ways they each thought best to achieve their mutual goal of destroying the creator of the Ring of Doom.

There were only five of these Istari in the history of Middle-earth: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown and two others who are briefly mentioned but not named in The Lord of the Rings. (These two “missing” Wizards names were revealed in the posthumously published Unfinished Tales.)

Each of the Wizards reacted to their new home quite differently. Radagast became enamored of the flora and fauna of Middle-earth and eventually forgot his quest. Saruman became intoxicated by power and headed down the same crooked path as Sauron, and was eventually ensnared by the Dark Lord himself. Only Gandalf remained true to the distant memory of the Valar “a vision from afar off,” and died fighting one of Morgoth’s ancient creations—the Balrog—in the Mines of Moria. And then he was resurrected…brought back to life by the Valar and given another body (the corporeal form of Gandalf the White).

This is all visionary stuff. Spiritual beings placed into bodies manufactured by demigods, like avatars in a videogame. A main character killed off and reincarnated back into the tale—something I don’t think had ever been done in the history of literature until Tolkien’s epic. The concept of the Istari is especially inspired when one keeps in mind Tolkien conceived all of this in the middle part of the 20th century—nearly three quarters of a century ago.

In my opinion, Tolkien could have penned an entire book based on Gandalf and Saruman alone. Wizards are fascinating. Peter Jackson & Co. must have felt the same, because they’ve written both Saruman and Radagast into The Hobbit Trilogy (you can see Radagast in the film trailer being pulled in a sleigh by a gigantic bunny rabbit—a vision of inspired lunacy).

The tales of the two missing Istari would have made a great story as well. The only time a reference is made to these other two Wizards is in The Two Towers (in the chapter “The Voice of Saruman”) when, after the Ents have destroyed Isengard and trapped Saruman, the corrupted Wizard rails at Gandalf, accusing him of wanting to take control of all of Middle-earth, including seizing hold of “the rods of the Five Wizards.” Three of these “Five” Wizards are Radagast, Gandalf and Saruman himself. The other two Istari are never mentioned again, not even in the Appendices.

After Tolkien died, however, his son Christopher put together a collection of his father’s writings called Unfinished Tales that revealed selections of J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes and stories about Middle-earth that had never been published before. In the chapter concerning the Istari we learn more about these two missing Wizards. They were certainly called the “Blue Wizards” and they may have even been named Alatar and Pallando (a great subject for starting a heated debate between Tolkien geeks).

Soon after the two Blue Wizards arrived in Middle-earth they passed into the East on a mission alongside Saruman never to return. The “East” here means the distant lands of Harad (and Far Harad)—the realms populated by evil Men under the thrall of Sauron. (These are the same Men who join Sauron’s forces and attack Minas Tirith in The Return of the King.)

Did Alatar and Pallando go on a mission to study the ways of the Enemy? Were they ensnared by Sauron and become his servants, intending to do good but falling into evil? Or were they betrayed by their travelling companion Saruman out of jealousy or fear, thus starting Saruman’s downward spiral into villainy? We will never know, because Tolkien didn’t write their tale. It’s interesting to speculate, however. Perhaps Saruman killed them and absorbed their power. Or maybe they were captured and destroyed by The Dark Lord, their sprits sent flying back to the Blessed Realm. Whatever the case, by the time the events of The Lord of the Rings begin, the missing Istari are nothing more than a passing reference in Tolkien’s vast sub-creation.

Fortunately for Middle-earth there was Gandalf, the wisest Istari who never gave up hope, who always returned at the turn of the tide, the divine being sent in “human” form to help defeat Sauron and who—once his mission was accomplished—happily boarded a ship for the Blessed Realm. Before departing Middle-earth for his true home, he imparted sage advice to Merry, Sam and Pippin: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep: for not all tears are an evil.” This Wizard would be missed.

Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 2)

This series of blogs, where I make conjectures about the plot of the upcoming The Hobbit film trilogy, is purely speculative. But if you hate spoilers, read no more, because I might just stumble upon a few of them as I Hobbit-hypothesize, as well as reveal some plot and casting nuggets that have already been dropped by Peter Jackson and his crew. To read Part 1 click here.

In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, after Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves arrive at Beorn’s house, the Wizard mysteriously departs for an entire day and returns at dusk, utterly famished, whereupon he slams two loaves of bread, a pound of butter and a quart of mead and practices blowing smoke rings contemplatively at the rafters. Gandalf is vague about what he’s been up to, saying he’s gone to the The Carrock, the place where the Eagles dropped them off after rescuing them from Orcs the night before. My guess is that in Peter Jackson & Co.’s version, Gandalf will have paid a visit to Rhosgobel—the home of Radagast the Brown—which Tolkien indicated lay between The Carrock and Mirkwood Forest.

Radagast is an Istari, just like Gandalf. They are two of the five wizards who were sent to Middle-earth by the Valar (the demigods of Tolkien’s world). From the moment they were created by the Valar the angelic Istari resembled wise old men though they “aged only slowly, and they had many powers of mind and hand.” They were meant to council the inhabitants of Middle-earth (Men, Elves, Dwarves and, eventually, Hobbits) in a war against Sauron should the Dark Lord return to power. At the start of The Hobbit the five existing Istari (Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown and Saruman the White as well as a pair of unnamed “blue-robed” wizards) have lived in Middle-earth for around two thousand years.

In Middle-earth Radagast’s name means “tender of beasts.” According to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales (compiled by his son Christopher from his father’s notes) Radagast became enamored of Middle-earth’s flora and fauna and lived alone in the woods near Beorn’s homestead on the western edge of Mirkwood, forgetting his mission from the Valar to help the people of this world. He’s more like a benign Doctor Doolittle of Middle-earth than the studly Beastmaster of Mirkwood. In real life the actors who play these two wizards—Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and Sylvester McCoy (Radagast)—are old friends, having most recently appeared together in a traveling stage production of King Lear with McKellen as Lear and McCoy as the Fool. It will be interesting to see if they bring shades of this production to the relationship between the dour Gandalf and the nutty Radagast.

If Peter Jackson and his writers want to make a clever visual connection to The Lord of the Rings films they could show Radagast using sentient moths as messengers, touching on the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf is imprisoned on the top of Orthanc, catches a moth, whispers to in a strange tongue, and then sends it off to find Gwaihir the Windlord—the giant Eagle who eventually comes to rescue him from Saruman’s lofty prison.

Close by Radagast’s home is an important site in the mythos of Middle-earth: The Gladden Fields—the place where Isildur was slain by Orcs at the start of the Third Age and where the One Ring sank to the silt in the bottom of the River Anduin. In Unfinished Tales we learn that Saruman told the White Council the One Ring was lost here and floated down the Anduin and thence into the sea. But Saruman was merely trying to throw Gandalf, Radagast and the Elves off his scent. Saruman, the craftiest of the Istari, suspects the Ring is still somewhere in the area of the Gladden Fields, and the power-hungry wizard has been searching for the all-powerful magical device for years before the action of The Hobbit begins.

What Saruman doesn’t know is that Gollum (aka Sméagol) found the Ring nearly five hundred years before and skulked off with it to the Misty Mountains where Bilbo happened upon Gollum’s “precious” after it had slipped from his finger. (Bilbo kept this wonderful treasure a secret from Gandalf.) Radagast has been living in Mirkwood almost two millennia, so he might have actually known the young Hobbit-like creature called Sméagol who used to live near the banks of the Anduin. And perhaps Radagast had heard the strange tales of the murder of Sméagol’s friend Déagol (as well as Sméagol’s sudden ability to become invisible). Radagast would certainly tell Gandalf this tale.

And maybe (still in this hypothetical film version) Radagast has found the artifact known as the Elendilmir somewhere in the Gladden Fields—a gemstone worn by Isildur and lost when he was slain by the Orcs. If Radagast did indeed find the Elendilmir, the daft wizard would probably keep the priceless artifact in an old bird’s nest or stuffed in a boot. He would show it to Gandalf—a wizard who is learned in the lore of Isildur—and Gandalf would instantly know what it was. This discovery, proof that Isildur died here, would reinforce Gandalf’s suspicions that the Dark Lord has returned to Dol Guldur to search for the One Ring in the area of the Gladden Fields.

At this point in the film Gandalf and Radagast would likely be attacked by Orcs, for Peter Jackson’s films are a wee bit action-oriented, are they not? This is the perfect opportunity for the heroic Legolas to come to the aid of the overwhelmed and outnumbered wizards. Perhaps the “young” Elf (the son of Thranduil, King of the Woodland Elves of northeastern Mirkwood) is on his way toward Dol Guldur on his own fact-finding mission in defiance of his father’s wishes. Or maybe he’s trying to find his lost love, captured by Orcs—the mysterious (and fabricated character) Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly. Legolas and Gandalf would likely decide to partner up along with Beorn, creating a heroic trio to rival any league of superheroes: Shapeshifter, Wizard and Elven Warrior.

As an aside, I want to mention that Saruman might logically be behind an attack on Gandalf. According to Tolkien’s notes Saruman ended up with the Elendilmir gemstone and hid it in his tower of Orthanc in a secret compartment, and this would be the perfect place for him to get a hold of it. Gandalf does not suspect Saruman of treachery at this point in The Hobbit, and he doesn’t realize his fellow wizard is evil until he is made his prisoner on the top of Orthanc seventy-seven years after The Hobbit ends (see The Fellowship of the Ring, both the book and film). According to Unfinished Tales, after Aragorn becomes King, Gimli unlocks a secret chamber in Orthanc and finds two items on a shelf—a gold chain intended, no doubt, for the One Ring; and the glowing Elendilmir stone.

Gandalf returns to Beorn’s home after visiting Radagast, then leads the Dwarves and Bilbo to the western entrance to Mirkwood, leaving them to their own devices, warning them to stay on the path no matter what. (Of course they end up ignoring his sage advice.) And then Gandalf departs south for Dol Guldur with Legolas and Beorn by his side (at least in my hypothetical film version). What they find is a fortress being rebuilt and inhabited not only by Orcs, but Ringwraiths as well, including the dreaded Witch King of Angmar—Lord of the Nazgûl.

Meanwhile, Bilbo and the Dwarves make it through Mirkwood, escape from the Elven King’s realm, get to the Lonely Mountain (via Laketown) where Bilbo comes face to face with Smaug the dragon for the first time. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey might end with Smaug opening his evil cat-like eye, searching his dark hall for the invisible and terrified Hobbit in his midst, intercut with the cat-like Eye of Sauron opening for the first time since his downfall by Isildur’s hand, deep in the heart of Dol Guldur.

Ending the first Hobbit film at this point would be, in the action of the book, about two thirds of the way through the text. Many people might wonder, “How can Peter Jackson & Co. possibly stretch out the story for another two movies?” Get ready for the expanded role of Bard the Bowman (as played by Welsh action/throb Luke Evans) the wrath of Smaug the “Greatest of Calamities,” and Gandalf and Legolas storming Dol Guldur with a ragtag army of Elves and Men.

To be continued in Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 3)