NEW YORK — These days, when it comes to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), it’s best to be of two minds.
On the one hand, there are the books — most famously “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” These are great works of spiritual and psychological insight, full of adventure and suffused with Catholic themes about good and evil.
Then there are the movies, action figures, and video games that in recent years have emerged as interpretations of Tolkien’s tomes.
These are often loud pop culture artifacts lacking the power and subtlety that the imagination brings to bear in engaging with Tolkien’s books. And that’s to say nothing of the absence from them of the Catholic motifs of Middle-earth. But if fans consider these products as separate from the literary Tolkien-world that exists in their heads, the films, toys and games can be quite fun.
Such is the case with “Lego: The Hobbit” (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment), the new video game based on the recent films by Peter Jackson. As with all of Lego’s electronic entertainment, this is basically a smash-and-grab exercise. The goal is to collect treasure and ultimately purloin the Arkenstone, a football-sized gem that has been stolen by the dragon Smaug.
This is done by traveling through Middle-earth defeating evil Orcs and collecting keys, gold and weapons.
There is nothing morally objectionable about any of this and since these are Lego characters and structures, the violence is cartoonish. There are frequent touches of the slapstick humor (riding down a river in beer barrels, etc.) that has become a Lego game trademark — and that also played a part in Tolkien’s original texts.
The characters will be familiar to devotees of the books and movies. There’s the wizard Gandalf, the Dwarf Prince Thorin Oakenshield and his 12 Dwarf companions, and Bilbo Baggins, Hobbit and “burglar,” who joins the company on its quest to retrieve Dwarvish gold and reclaim their ancient stronghold, Erebor, from Smaug. Players can switch between characters, each of whom has a different skill and weapon which suites them to a particular task.
The visuals in “Lego: The Hobbit” are gorgeous. Bilbo’s Hobbit hole, The Elvish home of Rivendell, the Mines of Moria, the lake city of Dale — all have rich color and fantastic detail. Smaug looks great, and it’s clever that, in the first stages of the game, he only appears in pieces — a tail blocking an entryway, a blast of smoke and fire.
If there is a drawback to the game, it is that it follows the Jackson film adaptations of “The Hobbit” in exacting, and even dull, detail. For those who’ve seen the movies, it’s not hard to guess what’s coming next, even though there are some side adventures players can opt to explore if they get bored with the main story arc.
The conclusion also is less than fully satisfying, which no doubt has a lot to do with the fact that there is still an unreleased third picture in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.
The voiceover work is largely done by the famous actors from the film: Ian McKellen is Gandalf, Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett is Galadriel, and Benedict Cumberbatch reprises his role as Smaug. It’s unclear what Tolkien, who lamented technology’s ability to foster avarice, would think of all this.
The Catholic News Service Classification is A-I — general patronage. The Entertainment Software Rating Board rating is E — everyone.