It was while thirteen dwarves and Gandalf were barreling through piles of computer-generated goblins in a rickety underground slum with a population as big as Rio de Janeiro that I asked myself a question: "What is this movie trying to say?" I let it stew for a bit, and now I'm gonna tell you.
I love The Lord of the Rings. I played the card game with my high school buddies and will never admit it to your face, ever. I saw The Fellowship of the Ring nine times in theaters, The Two Towers three times, and The Return of the King at midnight with my father. One of my former passwords was based off of an obscure Lord of the Rings lore reference that is still personally meaningful to me. I believe that the story, while riddled with sexism and moral oversimplification, is one of the most powerful arguments against despair ever written, and has enriched my life. So, with that out of the way, what do I think of The Hobbit?
That said, the film lives up to its predecessors' (antecessors'?) action sequences and imagination-filled world building. Rivendell and the Shire are more beautiful than ever. The fight sequence in the belly of the mountain is breathtaking, exciting, and funny. Ian McKellen couldn't be a better Gandalf. Richard Armitage is strongest in the fight scenes, carrying the weight and haunted nobility that drew us to Aragorn. But the best performances come from Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the riddle sequence. Gollum's expressions as he tries to figure out the riddles take up probably a half-minute of screen time and are as entrancing as anything in the movie. Martin Freeman's Bilbo plumbs depths that change him fundamentally, and with a subtlety that marks the whole series as not being for wimpy actors.
So why this film, and, more specifically, why this way? This The Hobbit appears to be a prelude to The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf and company hear warnings of an evil on the move, much subtler and scarier than the dragon. Gandalf finds his sword. Bilbo finds Sting, his awesome elven letter-opener equipped with Orc-radar. There are hints of Sauron returning. Perhaps most importantly, little Bilbo finds a gold ring.
Thematically, this conflict is nowhere near as important as what happens later on. Frodo's journey is so much more important than Bilbo's on the world's stage, the dwarves' revenge story is nothing compared to Sauron's world-destroying menace. But the story in and of itself is about parents and children, about heritage and protecting it. Thorin is striving to avenge his father and grandfather and everyone back to Durin, protecting his family line. Bilbo is living up to his Took heritage, throwing off his cloistered plate-cherishing OCD and gallivanting off (without his handkerchief, too!) on an adventure.
We know what these people don't--that their journeys now and their development now will be so important in the future. Gandalf carries that sword to his last fight at the Black Gate, Bilbo hands off the sword to Frodo and Sam saves his life with it later. Saruman betrays everybody with his overterror of Sauron, etc. Most movingly, it is because of Bilbo's mercy that the pathetic psychopath Gollum plays the larger role he does in this world-changing, world-saving story.
There's a message for us all here. Mormon children are brought up believing that they are living in The Latter Days. They are told that everyone on Earth has been saved for this time in Earth's history, and that they have special tasks to perform here and now. They will fight against evil and triumph. There will be losses and trials and horrible grief, but they will serve the purposes that Providence foresees.
To us, our parents and grandparents adventures may seem silly. Our own adventures might seem silly. But the fall down into the dark cave, the riddle game with the scary creature, the moment of courage, the moment of mercy, may shape our future. And the little things we pick up on our unexpected journeys may serve to be our downfalls, our addictions, our saving graces--they may be the reason we existed in the first place.