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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review: The Road Goes Ever On and On, and On, and On, and On

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | December 24, 2012 | Comments ()


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Mountaineer George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, is said to have replied simply, "Because it's there." This feels like the best way to explain the prevailing attitude and atmosphere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in director Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Over the next few years, Jackson will spend as much screen time on Tolkien's slender novel as he did on the The Lord of the Rings, the much larger epic that followed it. He was originally going to tell the story of Hobbit in two films, but decided during production to expand to three, covering not just the original novel but narratively concurrent information that Tolkien stuffed into the appendix at the end of Lord of the Rings. What's more, although An Unexpected Journey already runs close to three hours, the home video version will feature almost half an hour of extra footage. Journey feels every bit the work of a filmmaker who, faced with decisions of what story to tell or how to tell it, decided to say and do everything he could think of all at once. The film is long and arduous, with ungainly slides between genuine excitement and tedious exposition. It's packed with interchangeable heroes and extra villains and at least four main plot lines. Most of all, it feels sprawling in the worst way: bloated instead of epic, ponderous instead of insightful, hollow instead of honest. There are some good scenes and moments, mind you -- the film coheres somewhat in the back half, and there's a good 30-40 minutes where you can happily lose yourself -- but not enough to shake the idea that Jackson has gone back to Middle-earth out of habit. Not because it calls, or because it's worth going back, but just because it's there.

The biggest evidence for this is the fact that the film was shot and intended to be seen at 48 frames per second, double the standard 24 that you're used to watching. Other sources have gone into greater technical detail, and I'll let them do the heavy lifting, but the main thing to know is that the film has twice the visual information as every other movie you've seen, which makes it look smooth and slippery. Think of a soap opera, or that eerie picture-smoothing feature you disabled as soon as you bought your HDTV. Jackson shot in 48 fps in an attempt to capture a more lifelike image, but he's only succeeded in creating a visually awkward, uncomfortable, detached film designed to please only the technician behind the camera. The higher frame rate has some perks -- CG characters appear more solid -- but they're outnumbered by the drawbacks, most notably a queasy smoothness to chase scenes, quick pans, and aerial shots. And here's the thing: It's not that the image doesn't look more lifelike. In many ways, it does. Rather, it's that such attempts at verisimilitude come at the expense of the natural wonder and power we've come to expect from cinema. The sets look cheap, the wigs frayed, the costumes a little too unnaturally distressed. Classical frame rates have a way of hiding these edges and making actual magic, and we lose that with An Unexpected Journey. It feels like a test, an expensive, indulgent trifle. It's impossible to shake the feeling that Jackson's showing off instead of telling a story.

In fact, there's too much story here to tell. An Unexpected Journey kicks off with one of the many exposition-heavy bits of narration and flashback that will periodically show up to clog the action, peppered with names and locations whose peoples and meanings are impossible to keep straight. Soon enough, the central story line kicks in, starting 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings with a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) being recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to go on a quest with a band of dwarves to reclaim their stolen homeland. There are 13 dwarves, though the focus is mainly on their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), banished prince of his kin and the one who's most determined to lead the band of explorers back to the mountain the dwarves used to call home, where they'll do battle with a dragon named Smaug that sent them running in the first place. There's a good story in there, with natural ups and downs, and you can feel why it was so popular when Tolkien published it 75 years ago. Yet Jackson's not content to tell that tale, or rather, he's not sure he wants to, so he ornaments it with various backstories and tangents. There's a long-standing grudge between dwarves and elves; another long-standing grudge between Thorin and a fabled orc warrior from his past (Manu Bennett); the appearance of a dark magician who can raise the dead and calls himself the Necromancer; the Necromancer's encroachment on the forest overseen by Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), an environmentalist wizard with a bird's nest in his hair and dung on his face; and various cryptic things said to Gandalf by the elf maiden Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), whose slurred, slowed-down speech pattern falls somewhere between dedicated pothead and David Lynch muse. In other words, a lot happens, much of it tedious or necessary.

Now, Jackson isn't duty-bound to make a literal adaptation of The Hobbit; his purpose should be to create a compelling film story from the source material. It's adaptation, not translation. Yet it's telling that the film is at its weakest when it departs from the general story thread of the novel to galavant through end notes and family trees. It's been years and years since I read Tolkien's novel, but cursory research has shown me that the parts of Jackson's film I found most disappointing -- the cyclical exposition, the odd scenes of supporting characters that go nowhere -- don't have much of anything to do with the original story. Jackson hasn't found a way to make this expanded tale feel organic or real. Galadriel's appearance here is brief and mostly pointless, and it feels more than anything like ill-planned cross-franchise branding, an attempt to shake bored viewers into excitement by showing the glimpse of someone else they recognize from another movie. It's a lot like watching a movie and having someone interrupt you to tell you about something else that's happening in the film's world, without thought for pacing or narrative flow or whether you should even care. You can practically hear Jackson paging anxiously through Tolkien's books, unsure of what to cut or leave in, uncertain of where to go or what to do, and therefore committed (or resigned) to capture as much as he can. Jackson's also apparently too enamored of his greatest hits to cut them out.

It's not until the second half of the film that the action and pacing start to gel, as Bilbo and company make their way through treacherous mountain passes populated with goblins, beasts, and the withered creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), original owner of the magical ring that will eventually set larger stories in motion. The first meeting between Bilbo and Gollum -- a riddle contest for Bilbo's survival when he's separated from the dwarves -- is wonderfully done, thanks to Freeman's right mix of nerves and growing bravery and Serkis's fantastic work as the schizophrenic little fighter. Gollum's body has a smoothness that's one of the few noticeable benefits of the higher frame rate, and the scene is tautly paced and pleasingly tense. (At any rate, as tense as a scene can be when you've already seen the movie that shows exactly what will happen to these characters, and when.) There's some nice character work at play when Jackson can be bothered to stop cutting between extraneous plots and generic battles.

So what does it all add up to? It's hard to say, honestly. There are good ideas here. Jackson -- who shares writing credit with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens of Lord of the Rings, as well as with Guillermo Del Toro -- does a good job setting up the basic quest at the heart of the fantasy story, and at giving the dwarves and the hobbit just enough room to grow to trust each other as their journey moves on. His core cast is strong, too, particularly Freeman, whose casual befuddlement and years as the straight man on "The Office" and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy make him a relatable, reluctant hero. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is ultimately far too long and ungainly for its own good, more a collection of jammed-up scenes and ideas than anything you could call a movie. It almost feels laughable to use the word "unexpected" in relation to it: Given the success of Jackson's earlier Tolkien franchise, and his financiers' desire to keep cashing in on their popularity, it's little wonder he was turned loose once again on Middle-earth. Yet he was, and there are two more of these films yet to come. We're in for a very long walk, but I'm not sold on the virtues of going there and back again. This quest isn't for me.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • pinkerton80

    Hello, friends! A while ago there was a list ranking the dwarves in The Hobbit in terms of level of attractiveness, and now that I've seen the film, I'd like to see if I agree. Can anyone help me locate the list? Thanks! :)

  • bluebird

    Similar response. I was quite irritated by the gimmicky and lame attempts at humor, the ugly and stupid monsters, the odd way scenes are pasted together, and the film's determination to last forever. But there are some good scenes. The biggest flaw I see is that it doesn't connect stylistically to the LOTR movies. There are too many empty action sequences and there is not enough character development, and it feels like a wholly different world. The LOTR movies told a story about people facing real struggles with real emotional content. Much of the fighting in The Hobbit is just aerobics. Nothing wrong with the cast (but why do the monsters have working class accents?)...Freeman does an excellent Bilbo. The wizard with bird poop on his face? Not cute. Not cute at all.

  • identityx

    An awesome movie! Loved it. All the bitching and griping is funny really. Be thankful somebody made the movie. I saw it in HFR 3d and wasn't bothered by it, and it seemed to make the 3d better. I am curious as to why the HFR made it looked a little like daytime soap or something in parts, technically speaking. Who cares, on home Bluray it will be in 24 fps, and I won't bother with 3d. More songs needed and hope they continue in parts 2 & 3 ! Do agree with not making Bilbo into John Mcclain though. He always seemed a shy reticent character. Bravado and fighting, thats what Bilbo Baggins hates.Enjoy Middle Earth while you can whiners.

  • BobbFrapples

    I would have enjoyed this more if the man next to me hadn't kept falling asleep and snoring.

  • John Boone

    Two points:

    Folks who did not like the high frame rate clearly do not have tvs bigger than 32" or watch blu-rays and have not learned to love a better format and refresh rate. Go stay in 1999 with your DVDs.

    I am pretty sure anyone who regularly reads Tolkien- not breezily just reread The Hobbit- would enjoy this film. Go back to your simple quick films with uncomplicated plots and Harry Potter.

  • What the hell did Harry Potter do to you besides save the world you know and love?

  • Right, because the plot to the freakin HOBBIT, a children's book, is a masterpiece of complexity and 300 different plots and characters that had to be translated into 9+ hours of film.

    You simpleton.

  • Skyler Durden

    I liked it fine enough, but was really bored by the side plots. As an avid fangirl of the LOTR trilogy, it saddens me to say that I can't see myself watching this multiple times the way I watch the others.

    OTOH, I was amused to see that one-line-wonder Figwit was given an actual part this time. Only he's not called Figwit, which is a shame.

    Also, a public service announcement: Men, if your girlfriends do now want to see a three-hour fantasy movie, please, I beg you, do not take them. Leave them home. A bored woman with a cell phone is worse than the loudest crying baby in the world.

  • Salad_Is_Murder

    While I appreciate the sentiment, you could not be more wrong...about babies and phones, that is.

  • Jifaner

    Hmm. I didn't notice anything strange or "slippery" visually, but I saw it in 2D so maybe that makes a difference. It starts out a bit slow, and the dwarf names are hard to keep track of, but once the movie hits its stride about 20-45 minutes in, it's fantastic. I greatly enjoyed it. I don't know that I love it as much as LotR, but it's definitely a worthy companion to that trilogy.

  • Skyler Durden

    If you saw it in 2D, you probably saw the 24 FPS version. I intentionally chose 2D because I didn't want to be distracted by the frame rate. When it was over, I snuck into the 48FPS for a few minutes - the difference is pretty amazing.

  • Idle Primate

    Thank godtopus there is a 24fps option. And 2D.

  • This is pretty much exactly what I was expecting, and the reason why I wasn't very excited, despite having been freakishly excited for the LOTR movies. Pretty and well acted, but way, way too long. Because this is Peter Jackson, and anyone with half a brain knows that the guy can make a pretty movie but can't edit himself for shit.

    And it sounds like he still sucks at adapting what should be an easily adaptable book. The worst parts in the LOTR movies were the ones he and his writing team made up completely. The best scenes where the ones that stuck closest to the books. But no, let's go ahead and make 3 movies out of a 300 page book because we need to bleed 'em dry and they'll pay to see it in theaters and then buy the extended editions.

    It's bullshit. And I'm not rushing to the theater.

  • In all honesty, this has made me question how and when I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring. I think it may have been one of the two DVDs that came with my first DVD player from Costco. I'd never seen the movie in the theater and now that I'm thinking about it, I don't think I saw the entire trilogy in the theater.

    I might continue that trend.

  • At some point during The Hobbit I got so bored that I was starting to fall asleep. I looked at my watch and saw there was a whole 90 minutes left to go.

    I almost slit my wrists right then and there, but I couldn't find any razor blades in my row.

    I opted to stay just so I could see Gollum be all Gollumy, and he was, and he looked better than ever, but I was still bored as shit.

    I swear to you, the only thing that kept me involved in the movie was seeing which shots would look great in 48fps and which would look terrible. That mundane activity was literally more entertaining for three hours than this abortion of a film.

    And all this is coming from a big fan of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Those movies literally made me into a cinephile. Literally. I may have fucked one of the DVDs, but I'm was too drunk and don't remember anymore.

  • Robert

    I quite liked it. It is not a literal translation from the page. Jackson took a whole lot of liberty with how the events go down, character description, event timing, and the importance of various characters to make The Hobbit actually work as a film. Is it the fastest, most action-packed film ever? No. Nor is The Hobbit an action-packed, fast moving novel. It's much slower and more reflective piece of work than The Lord of the Rings and the film will reflect that.

    My big issue was the score, which was lazy. Howard Shore took the mountain song and just reused the theme again and again. He didn't write the mountain song himself. He just adapted it the same way for every single fight scene. It was a big distraction for me.

  • scary biscuits

    Fantastic review, as per usual. But I've gotta comment on one part that is a peeve of mine. Maybe I'm more sensitive to this because I know people with the disease (in fact, my husband is one of them), but "Serkis’s fantastic work as the schizophrenic little fighter." ? I don't think that means what you think it means:)

    "The term schizophrenia is commonly misunderstood to mean that affected
    persons have a "split personality". Although some people diagnosed with
    schizophrenia may hear voices and may experience the voices as distinct
    personalities, schizophrenia does not involve a person changing among
    distinct multiple personalities."

  • BierceAmbrose

    Nicely done you magnificent, captious bastard (See Mrs. J's post today, for the source of that marvelous turn of phrase.)

    Somebody taught me this shorthand:

    - In multiple personality disorder, several systems of response and memory - "personalities" - live in the same body, dealing with the same reality as the rest of us.

    - In schizophrenia, a personality is dealing with something other than the consensus reality most of the rest of us share.

    Whether Gollum shows the one condition or the other depends on how deeply you want to accept book's premises. If it's just a ring, he's schizophrenic. The ring interacts a bit differently with each individual in the story. So, how much of the ring's behavior with Gollum is "real" and how much the product of a fractured mind?

  • I could counter with "Common symptoms include auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking, and it is accompanied by significant social or occupational dysfunction." Gollum has all of these symptoms that characterize schizophrenia, as well as "grossly disorganized behavior (dressing inappropriately, crying frequently)" and "disorganized speech."

    It's proven in the first trilogy that Gollum is in fact a schizophrenic (based on these symptoms and citations) -- or at least suffers from multiple personality disorder. There's a "Smeagol" personality and a "Gollum" personality, at the very least, and he spends the majority of the time speaking to an inanimate object (The Ring). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Andrew Norris

    Once again, schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder are not the same thing.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    you don't think Gollum, who talks to his Precious, counts as someone who hears voices? He might be moody, but Gollum stays with his one persona.

  • Idle Primate

    'Cept when he argues with himself

  • What are the chances we'll get a Compressed Edition of this? Like the opposite of what happened with the expanded editions or more accurately what happened when they split Grindhouse into full-length movies? I would probably watch the hell out of an edited-down-to-only-the-story-from-the-book version of this.

  • Buck Forty

    Yup!
    A lot of movies could benefit from this. Never mind 'the Directors Cut' how about 'the Directors Do Over'?

  • BWeaves

    Just watch it on Network TV when it comes out.

  • Tinkerville

    I want so badly to disagree with you, Daniel, but I sadly felt the same after leaving the midnight showing. Part of me loved it despite its flaws since it was a wonderful return to Middle Earth and it had so many genuinely fun moments, but it felt so aimless and convoluted that its shortcomings became impossible to ignore.

    For me, the biggest problem was the tone kept changing gears-- going from a light-hearted adventure story that tried to force itself to be a dramatic epic without any kind of build up or emotional payoff. I still had a blast and loved a lot about it, but it was not what I was hoping for.

  • Mitchell Hundred

    Apparently, he's going to take a break from this project to make the next 'Tintin' movie before Part 2 comes out. Which is kind of a relief, since he'll at least be forced into brevity in that case.

    Unless of course he expands 'Red Rackham's Treasure' into an epic saga so that he can add a subplot about Professor Calculus and the Thompson twins taking down a counterfeiting ring. Let's not rule anything out here.

  • Nutcracked

    According to his interview on Colbert, Part 2 is already finished. Let's hope working on Tintin will prevent Part 3 from having 7 or so endings.

  • John W

    I still believe that Del Toro left this project because Jackson wanted to make it into an unnecessary trilogy.

  • annie

    Freeman said they only found out they were going to do a third movie at the wrap party. Maybe Del Toro was the only one Jackson let in on the trilogy plan.

  • savagecats

    I found it pretty hilarious that while all the other dwarves have prosthetic noses and elaborate beards, they made sure to keep Aidan Turner pretty. Gird your loins for Legolas 2.0. Now with chest hair! I assume!

  • Tinkerville

    And I, for one, thank them for that.

  • Rooks

    So true! They even made him Captain Accuracy Shot and Captain Obvious ("Orcs!"). Jesus, that made me roll my eyes.

  • this a hard burden to shoulder indeed, to follow up Bloom's iteration of Captain Obvious.

  • VonnegutSlut

    After reading this review & taking into account everything else I've heard about the film so far, I can only surmise that THE HOBBIT trilogy will be the cinematic equivalent of the neverending novel Michael Douglas' Professor Tripp couldn't stop writing in WONDER BOYS.

    I believe the quote describing it is something like: "It's as if you didn't make ANY choices." No, one or the other...always one AND the other. Every time. All the time.

    I suppose it remains to be seen whether the whole Hobbit triptych deserves to be blown into the river like that novel was.

    P.S. WONDER BOYS: what a fucking awesome movie.

  • Fucking awesome movie. Fucking awesome book. And there's a certain something - a feel, an atmosphere - to the movie that I've been trying to find in another movie, to no avail. So if you can think of any other movie that has even vaguely that kind of Wonder Boys atmosphere then I'd be grateful if you could let me know.

  • Yossarian

    I had the exact same association to WB while reading this review.

    Hannah Green: And even though you're book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's... it's at times... it's... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all. And I was just wondering if it might not be different if... if when you wrote you weren't always... under the influence.

    Grady Tripp: Well... thank you for the thought, but shocking as it may sound, I am not the first writer to sip a little weed. Furthermore, it might surprise you to know that one book I wrote, as you say, "under the influence," just happened to win a little something called the Pen Award. Which, by the way, I accepted under the influence.

    ...So does anyone know if Jackson partakes of the Halflings' Leaf?

  • idiosynchronic

    So in other words: it's a typical post-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson film, a mess of incredible imagery with absolutely no critical editing of story.

  • That's the problem when the director is also the writer and the editor.

  • Quanion

    When they were fighting/running away from the goblins and the goblin king, my boyfriend leaned over and asked "what is this, Pirates of the Caribean?!?".
    Jackson messed up, what was he thinking with the constant dumb quipping? I was so disappointed after this movie I nearly cried.

  • Laura

    That's the way I felt in the trilogy - they made Gimli into some sort of quipping side note, not the badass he actually is in the books.

    "In other words, a lot happens, much of it tedious or necessary." - Was that supposed to read unnecessary?

  • I honestly didn't found it too long. Actually, I'm happy it started so slow, because it gave you an good hour to get used to the fantastic new high frame rate technology. Me and others I've talked to really liked the higher frame rate. Yes, certain moments were too real and started to look fake. But I think the movie gains more from this technology than it looses. You feel more being part of the movie than watching it.

    And it was such a nice moment to welcome old characters back, characters that you knew from The Lord of The Rings. Sometimes reviewers forget that 'normal' people don't watch 2 movies a day and that humans like what they know.

    Of course, this movie is mostly for fans, but I think Peter Jackson did a fantastic job at making a movie that both fans of Tolkien will love and which also gives a complete newcomer a chance to dive into this completely new universe. And the pacing of the movie was fine, too, just the showdown was a bit too weak.

    I loved the HFR and rate it 9/10! :)

  • annie

    I didn't find it too long until a half hour to the end where I realized there were still two more movies left.

  • Return of Santitas

    I am really curious about this frames per second business and how it can make things "too real" and also "fake" at the same time. Not sure if I am curious enough to sit through The Hobbit, though. I had enough slow-talking Cate Blanchett in LOTR.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Second review I've read with a similar message. Don't think I'll be seeing it.

  • Yossarian

    "that eerie picture-smoothing feature you disabled as soon as you bought your HDTV"

    Ah, so THAT'S why everything on my parent's TV looks so weird.

  • My exact thoughts. My family doesn't disable that, which freaks me out when I watch movies or shows on their TVs.

  • Quatermain

    "The film is long and arduous, with ungainly slides between genuine
    excitement and tedious exposition. It’s packed with interchangeable
    heroes and extra villains and at least four main plot lines." The same could be easily be said about Tolkien's work, so at least the films are true to their source materials. Tolkien's books don't shout to the heavens for a brutal editor the way that, say, 'Atlas Shrugged' does, but they might quietly request a gentle one.

  • Leelee

    I feel like The Hobbit didn't suffer from the rambling lack of editing like Lord of the Rings did. I've just re-read it (in preparation for the films because I like to be thorough), and thought it was very quick paced - aside from the first chapter - and ruthlessly edited down to bare bones at times. So much so that when reading I was looking forward to bits and bobs being padded out and expanded in the film. Many of the pivotal scenes were dealt with quickly and without too much fuss. As you said, it being Tolkien there are still a lot of characters, but in The Hobbit only a few actually need paying attention to.
    In this way, it feels like Jackson was perhaps keeping the film true to the feel of the LOTR additional notes, rather than The Hobbit, which was a lot more accessible.

  • anikitty

    TLWS (too long, won't see) or TLDC (too long, don't care)

  • Fredo

    I understand stretching the story out. I understand going for a trilogy. You gotta keep fucking that chicken. Got it.

    But why make the movies the same length as the LOTR movies? 3 hour running times worked for those because there was so much to cram in. Even with the Extended Editions, you still didn't get it all in.

    But why not make The Hobbit movies easier and more accessible than their bigger cousins? It's a simpler, more adventure-driven story. Why not just make 3 2-hour movies? 120 minutes of running time still get your story across, get you to the 3 releases that you gotta get and allow you to avoid the bloatedness and the sluggishness? It even allows you to release Extended Edition for the uber-fans.

  • junierizzle

    It should have been one 3 hour movie at the most.

  • Natallica

    It would even be smarter commercialy: the book was aimed to kids, the movie may follow the same path and I don't think many kids would stay quiet and calmed during a three hour movie, much less a nine hour trilogy. Way to alienate a good part of the intended audience

  • Sara_Tonin00

    then they were clearly *not* part of the intended audience.

  • Natallica

    Sorry if I'm not using the term correctly. My english is not great

  • BWeaves

    Agreed.

    I'm going to do something I usually don't do. I'm going to see this in 3-D because I want to see what all the fuss is about with this 48 fps thing. I might even splurge for iMAX. This is only because I love the Tolkien stories so much, that I read them often, and I've cringed at previous attempts to film them. I'm still pissed off that Jackson didn't do the the Scouring of the Shire.

  • bluebird

    I saw it in 3D. I had never seen a 3D movie before. The problem I noticed, other than needing to learn how to see in that format, is that many scenes look like cardboard cut-outs, pasted one on top of another in layers - some closer, some farther away, right? But still flat. 3D seems good for viewing a long distance shot, such as of mountains, but it's lousy for action and close-ups. It also forces you to look at what they want you to look at, because everything else is out of focus. I found it distracting, although others might have a different experience.

  • Alex D

    The IMAX version is 3d but at 25 Fps. It looks good apart from any fast panning or tracking which looks very jittery.

  • Robert

    Without a 3 hour running time, all the songs would be cut from this trilogy, too. I want those 30 page songs adapted and sung at an appropriately funereal tempo, damn it.

  • Kip Hackman

    Yeah, I kept thinking all throughout the Fellowship scenes in Rivendell "Where in God's name is "The Lay of Gil-Galad"?! With admission prices being what they are, we freaking deserve "The Lay of Gil-Galad!""

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