The late October announcement that Disney is taking over the "Star Wars" franchise ignited a Death Star-like explosion of news and speculation: "Toy Story 3" scribe Michael Arndt is working on a script for Episode VII. Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill reportedly are ready to pull their tunics out of mothballs, though Harrison Ford might return if Han Solo is dispatched to that (metaphorical) big Millennium Falcon in the sky. There could be new “Star Wars”-related movies for years to come!
But the force of the latest "Star Wars" hoopla threatens to overshadow the impending continuation of the only major fantasy film series that matters, at least this year: "The Hobbit"/"Lord of the Rings" franchise.
So it's heartening to learn that Stephen Colbert is launching "Hobbit Week" Monday night on "The Colbert Report," featuring interviews with stars Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis as well as director Peter Jackson. Unlike his conservative blowhard character, Colbert, a "LOTR" superfan – he visited the "Hobbit" set and has hinted he scored a cameo in the film – is looking out for the little guy.
It's worth noting that his Comedy Central colleague, Jon Stewart, is an all-out "Star Wars" fanatic. He's compared President Obama to Luke Skywalker, Democrats to Ewoks and former Vice President Dick Cheney to Darth Vader. The Storm Trooper action figure created in Stewart likeness a couple years ago no doubt ranks among his proudest moments.
But the battle of Middle Earth vs. A Galaxy Far, Far Away, Bilbo vs. Yoda, Saruman vs. Darth Vader, Colbert vs. Stewart, is more than just fodder for online geek (and late night TV) wars. At stake is the legacy of two beloved film series whose initial greatness has created even greater expectations among dedicated – and overlapping – fan bases.
We've already seen stumbles with "Star Wars," whose prequel trilogy underwhelmed many devotees and enraged more, even if they kept coming back by the millions. George Lucas has wisely allowed his baby to receive an infusion of new blood, which won’t be the case with the upcoming “Hobbit” movies. Guillermo del Toro initially was enlisted to direct a two-part “Hobbit,” but was replaced by “Lord of the Rings” director Jackson, who turned J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slender volume into three flicks.
The “Harry Potter” series benefitted from regular changes in directors as the story, in keeping with J.K. Rowlings’ seven books, turned darker with each installment. The “Potter” team also helped the cause by releasing eight movies in a decade, keeping the momentum going and not allowing too much time in-between chapters to inflate hopes out of proportion.
Meanwhile, it's been nearly nine years since "The Return of the King," the last and probably best of the “LOTR” trilogy – and 35 years since Luke Skywalker's intergalactic daddy issues first surfaced, forever changing movies.
Timing in films, as in life, can be key. It’s likely no coincidence the announcement of Disney’s $4.05 billion deal with Lucasfilm came with both the holiday movie season – and “The Hobbit” – approaching. Hype, though, can easily lead to disappointment, especially with series that attract obsessive followers. Both The Ring and The Force exercise a hold on fans, who pray the results of any new movies will somehow match their often out-sized fantasies.
As Colbert heralds the arrival of Bilbo Baggins and friends at theaters on Dec. 14, check out a preview of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.