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Bilbo Baggins is on the road in director Peter Jackson’s cinematic take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit. In this first installment Jackson sets the stage for all that is to come. In some ways, this is just as critics feared when it was revealed that the single novel was being made into three separate movies—the story might get too drawn out.

That concern is legitimate. Sometimes the pacing feels a bit slow. The tale mines other Tolkien writings to fill in back story. But perhaps the biggest difficulty Jackson’s movie must overcome is his previous Lord of the Rings movies. As we visit the sunny shire and the breathtaking elfin city of Rivendell, as gruesome orcs spring forward and violent battles break out, it sometimes feels like we’ve seen all of this before.

The characters and the actors who play them are the saving graces. Martin Freeman makes an excellent Bilbo Baggins while Ian McKellen continues to define Gandalf. Richard Armitage is rugged and princely as Thorin. The exploration of the characters’ personalities and motivations in addition to the wonderful words and humor of the book itself keeps the movie from being just another action flick.

“Always evil will look to find a foothold in this world,” says Gandalf. And so it does, not only in the world of hobbits and dwarves but in the world of students and teachers and moviegoers. Seeing this movie the day after the deadly shootings in Connecticut, it seemed to me as if it was speaking into the tragedy. Darkness is infecting Middle-earth from without and the characters are fighting their own battles within. Thorin, born to be king of the dwarves, fights his pride and anger. Bilbo’s complacency almost keeps him in the comfort of his hobbit hole in spite of his desire to be involved in bringing justice to the displaced dwarves. And Gollum is the incarnation of greed and the way it changes us.

Though Jackson is cashing in on the opportunity to sell the story three times over by splitting it into three separate films, he continues to have a vision for the story. I am not complaining. At the close of the almost three-hour movie, I looked forward to seeing more of the adventure. (Warner Bros.)

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