Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy has zero traction with my kids.
“You shall not pass!” “My precious.” “I’m on your side, Mr. Frodo.” Nothing. Despite the fact that Jackson’s films left an indelible stamp on pop culture, my eight year old wasn’t even born when Return of the King
came out in 2003, so they’ve never slipped on the Rings
and haven’t sampled any of Tolkien’s stories.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
is the first film in the (so far) four-picture franchise that I think would actually interest them. Sweeping fantasy adventure. Darkly imaginative worlds. Subdued physical comedy. Dedicated Rings
fans might find The Hobbit
too amateurish, a byproduct of Tolkien’s lighter tone. It all helps make The Hobbit
a worthy introduction to this cinematic series for your children.
So, let’s welcome some uninvited guests into the Shire, put the Lonely Mountain in our sights, and figure out when you can watch The Hobbit with your kids.
Green Lights: “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.”
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but Peter Jackson really should have started this whole Tolkien endeavor with The Hobbit.
Now that I’ve seen the first part of this planned trilogy, this material is simpler, less complicated and far more accessible than the dense, mythology-laden Rings trilogy. There’s a reason most kids enter Tolkien’s Middle-earth through The Hobbit. The ease of the storytelling in the opening book makes it a proper introduction to the fantasy world of elves, trolls, dwarves, fairies, wizards and all sorts of fantastical creatures.
And years from now, when Jackson has concluded his Hobbit trilogy, I know parents will start with these three films before introducing their kids to the entire franchise.
But you can’t do that yet. You can only start with The Hobbit, and wait to transition to the Rings franchise in time.
Why is it better? It’s a matter of preference, of course, but Martin Freeman’s a warmer tour guide than Elijah Wood… his neuroses stemming from his voyage from home creating a more-credible obstacle for the courageous hobbit to overcome. How often, in this column, have we discussed the important lesson of reaching down deep to find the strength and fortitude to conquer a fear? It’s a running discussion point in the When column, and Bilbo Baggins’ last-minute decision to accompany the dwarves on their mission to the Lonely Mountain is triumphant.
The dwarves, themselves, are a belching, bouncy crew marked by bravery and hilarity. “Quite a merry gathering,” Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) calls them, and the levity this gaggle brings to the adventure lightens the mood when things get too… creepy.
There are large-screen thrills in The Hobbit, though they’re not quite as life-threatening as they are in the original Rings trilogy. Smaug the Terrible may cause havoc in later episodes. Here, the dwarves contend with pale-skinned orcs seeking vengeance against Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the reptilian slithering of Gollum (Andy Serkis). More on this in the Red Flags section.
The framing story to Jackson’s The Hobbit also brought to mind a new Green Light. We see older Bilbo (played, once again, by Ian Holm) putting his story down on paper. There’s real value in that. Recently, our family busted out DVDs of our kids when they were babies. It wasn’t that long ago, but it was so much fun to see how they’ve grown. “Thanks for recording all of this,” my wife said, with tear drops in the corners of her eyes. If Bilbo were real, his relatives likely would be telling him the same thing.
Red Flags: “What is a Bagginses, precious?”
Tolkien’s critics will tell you that The Hobbit is an easier book to start with than Fellowship, though a few elements still will trip up younger audience members taking Tolkien for a spin.
The language, for example, is a steady stream of tongue-twisting fantasy names: Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Oin are just a few of the dwarves marching with Bilbo to uncharted territories in Middle-earth. But Jackson doesn’t hurry through introductions, and spends a good chunk of the film’s first act at a Shire dinner party that will let your kids get comfortable in the land before the movie kicks into a higher gear. (Rings fans might find this stretch intolerable, but it works well for Rings virgins separating a dwarf from an elf – don’t ever confuse the two!)
Once Bilbo agrees to his Unexpected Journey, Jackson keeps the fantasy thrills brighter and more exuberant than in the Rings films. There are hints of Necromancers – or spirits of death – and giant freaking spiders who are seen in passing. And these might be threats in future chapters, but aren’t an issue here. Even when the dwarves enter the mountain pass and confront the orcs – as well as Gollum – Bilbo’s able to keep the ring-obsessed skeleton on his heels with a charming riddle contest that will have your kids laughing and guessing along.
The final scene in The Hobbit promises Bilbo’s journey will grow more difficult in the upcoming chapters, and I’m sure Rings fans are patiently waiting for Jackson to step up his game. But for now, The Hobbit actually stands as a welcome chapter for fantasy-curious kids who want to know about those movies mom and dad have been raving about, but are hesitant to show.
The whole time I was watching The Hobbit, I was thinking that my oldest, P.J., could handle everything that we were seeing on-screen. There are scenes of epic orc battles, with villains beheaded (through bloodless chops) and heroes rescued by massive hawks before plunging to their deaths. There is peril, but little doubt that our protagonists will triumph.
In fact, the main factor keeping me from rushing out to the theater with my sons in tow is the film’s length. Jackson hates editing his Middle-earth soap operas, and The Hobbit suffers from a marginally bloated, 169-minute run time (and the promise of extended editions on the horizon). My boys get antsy at the 90-minute mark of an animated movie. Can they handle nearly three hours of Hobbit fantasy? Likely not.
But if your kids are ready and willing for a double dose of Tolkien, The Hobbit is geared toward kids age 10 and up. The material is softer than the Rings books, and Jackson’s movie follows suit. I can’t wait to see where the director goes next with this new trilogy. Will you be following along?
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.