No major release of 2012 arrives at theaters with more baggage or battle scars than “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” a title that became a sort of epic inside joke for the cast and his crew, many of whom worked on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy that made movie history a decade ago.
“I think fate has actually been kind to us,” director Peter Jackson said last summer, although he didn’t sound convinced by his own words. “Yes, I think fate was kind but I don’t know that we knew that along the way.”
That’s how most quests go, of course, but the journey to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga into a lavish two-part movie adventure was especially stormy right from the beginning. Roadblocks included an ugly legal battle with the author’s heirs, a two-year delay that came with financial meltdown of MGM, the jolting defection of director Guillermo del Toro, a nasty union dispute and a hospital stay to treat a stomach ulcer for Jackson, who shifted from co-writer and executive producer to director after del Toro’s departure in May of 2010.
There’s also been the vague but very real anxiety that comes with competing with history — can this encore effort actually escape the considerable shadow of the “Rings” trilogy, which racked up $2.9 billion in worldwide box office and saw its finale installment in 2004 become the first fantasy film to win the Oscar for best picture?
This time around, Martin Freeman (best known for costarring in BBC’s “The Office” and his work in films such as “Love Actually” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) portrays Bilbo Baggins, a young Hobbit who joins a band of dwarfs on their journeys to Lonely Mountain where they hope to reclaim their treasure from Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon who has squatted for so long on his hoarded riches that his pale underbelly is encrusted with jewels and gold pieces.
Not only is Ian McKellen back in the peaked hat of Gandalf, but there are also plenty of other familiar faces from the “Rings” cast (although some make only fleeting appearances); among them are Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Christopher Lee and even Ian Holm, who portrayed the older version of Freeman’s character when last we visited the Shire, the land of the Hobbits.
For the uninitiated, “The Hobbit” was published in 1937 and is considered by many Tolkien scholars to be a Misty Mountain warm-up act for the darker, richer 1950s “Rings” epic, which aimed for older readers and found them by the millions across the decades. The softer tones of “The Hobbit” were an early concern for Jackson and the returning members of the “Rings” creative team, among them Philippa Boyens, a screenwriter on all three “Rings” films (and an Oscar winner for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which closed out the trilogy in 2004).
“The story is very much a children’s story so deciding how to tell this was one of the first things we had to do,” Boyens said in a phone interview right before Christmas. “Who is the audience? It is very distinctly different, tonally, to ‘Lord of the Rings’ until the very end and then you begin to see the world of Middle-earth opening up… but, having said that, we felt that it is the same audience [who will come to see the films] and then you start to worry because it is easy to repeat yourself. It is quite a similar journey, you’re going from the Shire to a large, dangerous mountain.”
By most reports, Warner Bros.’ two “Hobbit” films — the second of which, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” will be released in 2013 — have a combined budget in the $500-million range, so the stakes are high. The appetite of fans is certainly intense (the first trailer for the film, released Dec. 20, quickly became an Internet sensation) and when Jackson made a surprise appearance last summer at Comic-Con International in San Diego he was cheered like a returning war hero.
Backstage, he said that, after the first three Tolkien films, he never expected to be back for another tour of duty but that — like Bilbo Baggins — it’s the journey that chooses the traveler, not the other way around.
“This is the most enjoyable filmmaking experience of my career, by far, which is interesting since I came into it slightly reluctantly,” the director said in San Diego. “It’s all unexpected.”
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens Dec. 14.
— Geoff Boucher
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