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Can ‘The Hobbit’ escape the towering shadow of ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

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FOUR FRANCHISES AT A CROSSROADS: PART ONE

This week we’re taking a look at four major trilogies from this decade that are looking to add a fourth film despite substantial challenges -- not least among those challenges the skepticism of moviegoers who may wonder if some of these Hollywood vehicles are running on empty. You can find the other three installments of the series right here.

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‘LORD OF THE RINGS/THE HOBBIT’

The story so far: Director Peter Jackson’s majestic and magical interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic is arguably the gold standard now for fantasy-film franchises. The ‘Rings’ film trilogy piled up a staggering $2.92 billion in worldwide box office (plus more than $3 billion in DVD and others ancillary sales) and also pulled off a magic trick that has eluded the ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Harry Potter’ franchises -- it cast a spell over voters in the marquee Oscar categories of best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.

The challenge:

The bad news is Jackson won’t be directing this time. The good news, though, is that Guillermo del Toro is his handpicked successor. After the twitchy, unsettling and singular fairy visions of the Oscar-winning ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ there’s plenty of reason to get excited about the Guadalajara native’s mighty imagination coming to bear on, say, the black forest of Mirkwood. Still, ‘The Hobbit,’ published in 1937, is considered by some to be Tolkien’s literary warm-up act for the his 1950s ‘Rings’ epic, which is more complex, darker and intended for an older audience. Also, off the screen, del Toro has the daunting task of following the crescendo success of ‘The Return of the King,’ which on its own racked up $1.1 billion to go with those Academy Awards. The stakes are high: ‘The Hobbit’ will be told over two films with a combined budget north of $300 million. The status: Work is well underway in New Zealand on ‘The Hobbit,’ although principal photography won’t begin until April. Major casting announcements are imminent (Ian McKellan, above, is already in, as are Andy Serkis and Hugo Weaving, according to recent comments by del Toro in a BBC interview) and there will be plenty of time for fans to debate them -- the first of the two films isn’t due until December 2011, with the sequel to follow in December 2012. Jackson is on board as co-writer and executive producer and, by all accounts, his working relationship with del Toro is a supportive and upbeat one. And, miraculously, the film seems to have finally escaped the dreaded pits of litigation; an ugly dispute with the heirs of the late Tolkien was settled last month and Jackson’s bitter, scorched-earth battle with New Line Cinema was somehow resolved in 2007 and now seems like a fading memory -- well, at least to all of us who didn’t pay attorney fees.

The prediction: This Friday, when del Toro blows out the candles to celebrate his 45th birthday, I doubt his wish will have anything to do with the box-office performance of ‘The Hobbit.’ This is a filmmaker driven by the demands of his imagination, not studio expectations. It’s a good thing that del Toro will not obsess about matching ‘Rings’ in commercial success because there’s no way it’s going to happen. I wonder if these films can match the massive swoon and battlefield sweep of Jackson’s trilogy, and while Tolkien fans will likely love them, I suspect that a significant percentage of the American moviegoing public has some Middle-earth fatigue at this point. As for the true Tolkien devotees and fantasy diehards, I’m guessing they become gleefully divided over the Jackson trilogy versus del Toro double feature and inherit a decade of a debate like the Radiohead fans who still bicker about ‘Kid A’ and ‘OK Computer.

-- Geoff Boucher


Four major franchises look to make a fourth film, but should they?

VOTE: WHICH FRANCHISE IS MAKING A MISTAKE WITH A FOURTH FILM?

RECENT AND RELATED

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Guillermo del Toro will take Disney on a scary ride

Peter Jackson: Movie fans are ‘fed up with the lack of original ideas’

Photo at top is Ian McKellen in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ Credit: New Line. Guillermo del Toro photo from Universal. Photos at bottom are McKellen again, then Tobey Maguire in ‘Spider-Man,’ Halle Berry in ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and Johnny Depp in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ Credits from left: New Line Cinema, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Studios.


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