The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Peter Jackson.
I like small movies. Little movies about people in small spaces of time, people maneuvering through the small (but often cavernous) spaces in their hearts and psyches. Most of my favorite films of 2012 are that sort: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Ruby Sparks, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for example. The stuff that interests me about someone else’s life is the small stuff: what’s on your night-table? What are you carrying in your backpack? When did you last experience buyer’s remorse? Little questions and little moments give me a more meaningful picture of you than big things. I do want to know what it says on your diploma; but I want more to know what’s printed on your coffee mug.
The trouble with small movies, though, is that they’re so specific they seldom achieve real universality, which means the likelihood that they will achieve serious greatness is smaller than if they swing for the universal fences that surround us all. It’s so, so easy to mess up a big movie, but when a big movie works, it can change everything for you because that’s what it’s trying to do.
This is probably why it took until the 359th day of 2012 for me to see a movie I loved. Until Christmas Eve, the big movies I saw were big but they didn’t swing for the fences, except for The Hunger Games, which I did like very much. When the credits rolled on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I’d somehow forgotten that a movie could make me feel as if something in me and in my world had been changed. I am not saying this is a world-changing film; somehow, though, something feels different.
Martin Freeman is the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, and he leaves the smallness of his home for the bigness of an adventure, surrounded by dwarfs and looked-after by the old wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Freeman is perfect as the simple, wide-eyed, good-hearted Bilbo, so much a better hero than Iron Man or Thor could ever be. And Ian McKellan, reprising his Lord of the Rings role, is equally perfect. It would be so easy for McKellen to phone in his performance, or to play it with just a tiny amount of distancing or condescension, but he totally commits to his role, admirably not too cool to be a bearded, dragon-fighting, spell-casting wizard leading twelve dwarfs through a goblins’ cave.
Bilbo’s adventure is big, and his movie is long. But there are big effects, big vistas, and big music to fill in the space around his small being, and as long as you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere, it’s not an unpleasantly long film. I appreciate the way it takes its time, especially in the first act, and if the final act is something of a blur of actions scenes, one after the next, the film never forgets that it’s about a world that can be changed by the small, moment-by-moment convictions of one simple-hearted hobbit.