The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Well, that dwarf-looking Kiwi Peter Jackson has returned to his beloved Middle Earth, this time to grace us with an ambitious telling of Tolkiens most accessible work. When I heard that they were planning to split The Hobbit into two parts, I thought that that seemed fair and was probably the smart way to go. Then word started going around that THAT little plan had been scrapped and now The Hobbit was going to become a trilogy of near Lord of The Rings grandeur and proportion. Then I started getting worried. The book is not a terribly dense read, unlike pretty much EVERYTHING else Middle Earth-related, and I wondered how much padding would be needed to fill the lean story to the EPIC proportions laid out by LOTR. Now I love LOTR, especially the bloated DVD Extended cuts but I was concerned about the integrity of the core story which, for anyone who’s been living in a Hobbit hole for the last 70 years, goes like this: A well-to-do Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins is shanghai’d by the wily wizard Gandalf into joining a troop of displaced dwarves who intend to return to their abandoned ancestral kingdom to attempt to reclaim it from a vicious dragon named Smaug. That’s it. It’s essentially an episodic trip through Middle Earth as seen through the eyes of the timid and inexperienced protagonist as he learns of his own hidden strengths and weaknesses. But I couldn’t rightly get worked up about it without seeing it. So see it, I did. First off, I’ll just come out and say that The Hobbit is quite a good companion to LOTR, and a fun and good-looking movie on its own. But it is NOT perfect. Some of what I was afraid of did come to pass as the story unraveled. The beginning of the film nicely takes its time with the set-up and makes some inspired connections to LOTR, with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles as Elder Bilbo and Frodo.. Then, in flashback, we meet young Bilbo, played now by Martin Freeman (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Freeman seems slightly self-aware (somehow) in the early scenes but in short order, grows into the character and makes Bilbo his own. Before long, the rest of the cast literally turn up at his doorstep, led by Gandalf, again played by a noticeably older ( but still vibrant) Ian McKellan. The 12 dwarves are very well realized visually, with each of them having interesting individual elements . But, even though we’re pointedly introduced to them, many aren’t given enough screen time to really stand out. I mean, there was Handsome Archer Dwarf, Awkward Slingshot Dwarf, Ravenous Fat Dwarf, Bald Warrior Dwarf, Funny Hat Dwarf, and so on. Of all of them, the characters of Thorin Oakenshield and his older ‘right hand’ dwarf Balin stood out the most, the actors giving a certain gravity to the characters motivations and actions. And regarding the dwarves, one thing that had me quite curious (and worried) was the sheer number of Dwarf Songs in the book. There are loads of songs scattered throughout The Hobbit story. But luckily, Jackson chose to play it safe and only included two. One was a fun little piece that accompanied a frantic cleaning of Bilbos home, while the other was a surprisingly haunting ode to their destination (as heard in the trailer). After they all set out on the journey, the feared padding starts to creep in. We are introduced to a member of Gadalfs inner circle named Radagast The Brown, a weird dirty forest wizard (with what looks like bird shit caked on half his head) who begins discovering that a dark force is beginning to affect the plants and animals in the woods. Now, as far as I recall, this character has little to nothing to do with the book and seems to have been scripted to give rise to a sub-plot involving the lead-up to LOTR. This subplot continues after the troop of adventurers opt to visit Rivendell to consult the Elves. Here, 3 more LOTR characters pop up in the forms of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the (eventually) traitorous Sauroman (a really old Christopher Lee) and they engage in a filler-feeling dialogue regarding dark forces and yaddah yaddah yaddah. This is where the pace of the flick slows noticeably. The saving grace is that everything is SO pretty to look at. Again, Middle Earth is beautifully rendered and I swear that the New Zealand tourist industry now owes pretty much its ENTIRE existence to Peter Jackson and these flicks. After the dull stint to Rivendell, the party ventures back out into the fray. Almost as though Jackson realized the lag, the rest of the film picks up the pace and doesn’t really stop. There is action galore! Especially in the tunnels of the goblins, where Bilbo gets separated and stumbles into a soon-to-be classic encounter with our ole pal Gollum/Smeagal. This time around, the CG for the character is friggin amazing. Gollum looks absolutely photo-realistic and, coupled with Andy Serkis’ awesome performance, is a force to be reckoned with, even for the short bit that he’s around. From there it leads to a typically grand battle, escape, cliffhanger and credits. All in all, if you enjoyed the Lord of The Rings trilogy, odds are good that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will set you on the right path. Don’t expect perfection, just expect an adventurous trip through a really nicely realized fantasy world, in preparation for the next two installments.

PS-For a film filmed entirely with 3D cameras, the 3D aspect is decidedly underwhelming. Only a couple of scenes stood out as benefiting from the technique. 2D would serve this flick just fine. And I really can’t comment on the whole 48 FPS controversy as the version I saw didn’t seem to have the ‘1970s BBC video broadcast’ feel that everyone is complaining  about.

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