To the aficionado, this is a spectacular 3-D epic. To the uninitiated and disinterested, it would be about as exciting as watching two sci-fi nerds play “Dungeons and Dragons”: enormously contrived, and bewilderingly deployed.
According to this screenplay, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic, the Dwarves once enjoyed a prosperous society with a thriving economy, but alas, the leaders got greedy, and then everybody paid the price.
Ripe for takeover, the Dwarves were run out of their homeland by the enormous fiery dragon, who was obsessed with having their gold, and could not be dissuaded, distracted or defeated.
Reluctantly, the Dwarves become nomads and wanderers, albeit still proud warriors, still carrying resentment toward the Elves for not helping them in their crisis, and longing for their once-taken-for-granted Camelot. (“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland”: Hebrews 11:14. Tolkien himself said that his themes were intentionally Christian, as was true also of his friend, C.S. Lewis, who wrote the fanciful “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”.)
Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is a wizened old wizard who wants to recruit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a safe and secure Hobbit living contentedly by himself in the country, and unwilling to get involved in anybody else’s difficulties (Tolkien’s metaphor for America’s default isolationism?). But once Bilbo does decide to go with the Dwarves on their adventure, he proves to be, though initially unimpressive, full of courage and resourcefulness.
Along the way, Gandalf intones solemn morality lessons, such as sometimes the best use of a weapon is deciding when not to use it (Tolkien, a veteran of the brutal trench warfare of World War One, said that by 1918 all his friends were dead). Let’s see, then there’s a little carriage pulled by jackrabbits, a coven of bad guys riding snarling wolves, a host of giant rescuing harpy/eagles, a battle in the deep underground involving the slaying of unknown legions of combatants, but still the violence is unceasing (the 20th century comes to mind). There are Goblins, Orcs, and Wargs; a veritable procession of mythical creatures, but alas, though fascinating, frustratingly unexplained, which viewers who are not Lord of the Rings” devotees will just have to appreciate for what they are: fantastic creative inventions.
Bilbo eventually meets Gollum, the bipolar little preening demi-midget who intrigues and annoys simultaneously, and that forlorn encounter leads to the discovery of the magic ring, which helpfully makes Bilbo invisible to his enemies and allows him to escape (shades of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak).
Well, here’s a “Never Never Land” that is much more dangerous than Peter Pan ever envisioned, and violent, also. (“Peter Pan” was yet another whimsical fantasy written by yet another Englishman in the same time period.) But it’s not so much a destination as a journey, anyway, and Bilbo, in undertaking his unforgettable discovery pilgrimage, at least does something more interesting than sit by himself in his favorite armchair by the fire and read his books. And perhaps writing this classic saga was the way Professor Tolkien managed to do the same.
Ronald P. Salfen is minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.