Thirteen years ago, George Lucas dropped "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" with a loud toilet splash. Two years later, Peter Jackson launched the far-more beloved "Lord of the Rings" trilogy with "The Fellowship of the Ring." By 2005 Jackson had won Best Picture, while Lucas had absorbed a hella ton of nerd grief for his valiant space opera efforts on the prequels.
Now Jackson is in the unenviable position Lucas was in of having to live up to the legacy of his own trilogy with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three "LOTR" prequels. While it's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, Jackson's new sojourn into Middle Earth has at least 10 things going for it over "The Phantom Menace," and you better believe we're countin' 'em all down.
Martin Freeman Out-Acts Jake Lloyd By a Mile
They're both in the somewhat thankless role of being the tiny centerpiece of a gargantuan franchise, but as expected, Freeman rose to the challenge and carries the proceedings as the fastidious fussbudget Bilbo Baggins with wit and charm to spare. Lloyd was less successful in his turn as the whiny nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (although to be fair Freeman is a bit older, more experienced, and can probably beat him up).
Radagast > Jar Jar
Early reviews had Gandalf's fellow wizard Radagast the Brown pegged as a jumping-the-shark Middle Earth equivalent to the deplorable Jar Jar Binks. As played by former "Doctor Who" Sylvester McCoy, the character is actually a welcome breath of fresh air to a prequel that frequently trods on very familiar territory from "Lord of the Rings." Radagast is almost like a freaky homeless wizard, complete with a slathering of bird guano on his face from the nest he keeps in his hair. So, yeah, he might be a little nasty, but he is most definitely NOT the Jar Jar of this movie.
Ian McKellen's Beard is Longer Than Liam Neeson's
This one seem's pretty self-explanatory. While both Gandalf the Grey and Qui-Gon Jinn resemble acid freaks who followed the Grateful Dead around the country a little too long, Gandalf's "Unexpected Journey" shows that the ol' smoker can still grab a toke of Old Toby whenever he needs a spot of courage.
Mountain Fight… 'Nuff Said
The pod race, the big droid battle, any of that stuff, all pales in comparison to witnessing the staggering scale of two mammoth hunks of rock pummeling each other to pieces while our heroes hang on for dear life. Though not everything works in 48FPS 3-D, this "Hobbit" sequence will floor you on a visceral level, and the Stone Giants will no doubt become as classic an action sequence as Luke's X-Wing rocketing down the Death Star trench.
The Goblin King's Neck Wobble Vs. Boss Nass's
Barry Humphries makes an awesome Goblin King in "The Hobbit." He's got this really wobbly neck sack that is freaky, but makes him distinctive and cool -- way cooler, in fact, than slobbery Gungan leader Boss Nass. In "Phantom Menace," Nass was played with annoying basso inflection by Brian Blessed, who recently voiced The Pirate King in "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."
That's right, we said singing dwarves. When these guys belt out "Over The Misty Mountains Cold"straight from the J.R.R. Tolkien text (it starts at the :51 mark in this trailer), the timber in their voices is so resonant that it's one of the moments which compels Bilbo to haul ass out of Bag End and join them on their quest. Next time we hope the dwarves sing Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop"…
Lust For Gold
In "The Phantom Menace," George Lucas sets up the Jedi as this pseudo-Arthurian order of chivalric knights who serve the cause of peace and justice. However, despite a subplot about reclaiming their rightful homeland, blah blah blah, Gandalf and his dwarf crew in "The Hobbit" are basically out to pull a MASSIVE gold heist from an evil dragon. In our book, that makes the dwarves' motivations way cooler than Jedis, who are just sort of blandly good for goodness sake… BORING!
Galadriel is Hotter Than Queen Amidala
Alternately known as the Lady of Light, Galadriel is an ethereal elven ruler of Lothlórien, and her beauty is of the highest magnitude. As played by Cate Blanchett in the original trilogy, she returns in "The Hobbit" (having not aged a day) to lay out a heaping pile of exposition to Gandalf. Comparatively, Natalie Portman's Amidala in the prequel trilogy has little of that transcendent beauty or grace, and just seems to always be hasslin' Anakin about one thing or another.
We Actually Want to Live in Middle Earth
One of the key reasons "The Hobbit" has been such a perennial work of fiction over the last 75-years is that Tolkien created a world of beauty and wonder that you wanted to return to again and again. The lush hills, pristine valleys and glorious mountainsides of Hobbiton and realms beyond, as visualized by Peter Jackson and his team, are just as welcoming as written. "Star Wars" also creates many cool planets, but we wouldn't want to rent a studio apartment in the cold metal world of Coruscant, or sweat our balls off in the dried-out wastelands of Tatooine.
Peter Jackson is a Maniac
Gotta hand it to Oscar-winner Peter Jackson: The guy loves this world, so much so that he decided -- without prompting from a studio -- to make "The Hobbit" into three films instead of two. True, it also reinforces the idea that he's become a self-indulgent crazy person whose films are out-of-control bloated, but at least it shows he's enthusiastic about Middle Earth. That's opposed to George Lucas, who seemed to be making the "Star Wars" prequels either out of some reluctant sense of corporate obligation or as a guinea pig to implement all kinds of trend-setting technology… and look how well that turned out!