The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

<em>The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey</em>

It doesn’t seem like it’s been nine years since Peter Jackson and company delivered the last of the Lord of the Rings films, but after making forays off into other films for a time, they are back to deliver J.R.R. Tolkein‘s initial dip into Middle Earth: The Hobbit.

Actually, make that the first part of three epically long films with which Jackson will tell the story of The Hobbit, despite the book itself being one fairly slender volume. Which is a major problem The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey cannot overcome no matter how hard it tries, but more on that in a bit.

Though a prequel in terms of films being released, The Hobbit, for the uninitiated, is actually the original idea, a nice little adventure story for children about an untroubled young hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who, for reasons he doesn’t really understand, packs up and goes off one day with the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves to help them steal their mountain kingdom back from the dragon Smaug, who has taken it over.

It was, and remains, a charming little adventure story which sticks its toe into the bitterness of war and darkness but does not dive whole-heartedly into it the way the Lord of the Rings eventually did, but from which that tree grew.

Jackson and company want to make certain you don’t forget that, by taking every chance they can get to connect events referenced in the previous films to their actions in The Hobbit, beginning with a heavily, heavily extended prologue featuring an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and a still-innocent Frodo (Elijah Wood) preparing for the party which kicks off Lord of the Rings proper and reminiscing about a simpler, happier time. This is the heart of The Hobbit‘s problems.

On a purely mechanical level, it’s excellent, well-written and performed, adding gravitas and weight by reminding us what this simple adventure will portend in a way that snaps into place like a perfectly-formed puzzle piece. It’s also completely extraneous and unnecessary, ultimately doing nothing which isn’t better done elsewhere and merely extending out the already too-long running time of a story which, frankly, does not have enough plot to support the epic the filmmakers are trying to turn it into.

And they know it, which is why they have plundered every Rings resource they can get their hands on to bulk up the story, by showing events which had been hinted at but never made explicit, as one of Gandalf’s brother wizards (Sylvester McCoy) discovers a dark force beginning to build in the forest, and the powers that be of Middle Earth (Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving) try to decide what to do about it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is stuffed to the gills with such extrapolations. Some of them, such as the White Council sequence, are excellent and do exactly what the filmmakers and the hardcore fans would want without weighing the film down too much for the uninitiated.

Many others, however, aren’t quite so needed, no matter how well-executed — particularly the Radagast the Brown moments — and they distract from the events of the story itself. Which, when we do get to them, are fantastic, particularly the incident with the trolls and Bilbo’s fateful meeting with Gollum (Andy Serkis), where the tension is reduced to a battle of wits between the two that is exactly what The Hobbit needs.

It helps that Freeman is perfectly cast as young Bilbo, falling in amongst the returning veterans as if he belonged, making you believe simultaneously that he could turn into elderly Ian Holm while still portraying his Bilbo as a man of his own, a man slowly learning his own worth and what he is actually capable of.

McKellan slips back into being Gandalf as if he’d never stopped and is given perhaps more to do than he’s ever had in any of the Rings films. Richard Armitage makes for an excellent action lead as Thorin, though he’s often reduced to just glowering at everyone, but after that, things get dicey. It’s easy to just throw in 12 characters into a book and forget about them, but on screen, it’s a different story, and even with nearly three hours to play with, Jackson and his co-writers (Rings veterans Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, joined by Guillermo Del Toro, who had been attached to direct) can’t differentiate all of them nearly enough.

In fact, after a while they don’t even bother. Maybe that will change over the six more hours of Hobbit awaiting us, but at the moment they clearly have their favorites, particularly young action twins Killi (Aidan Turner) and Filli (Dean O’Gorman), elder statesmen Dwalin (Graham McTavis) and James Nesbitt‘s Bofur, who provides a lot of the film’s warmth, humor, and humanity.

Much of the Rings behind-the-camera talent has returned, as well, making The Hobbit visually resplendent, as to be expected, and just as well-put-together as the previous films were. It’s such a shame such excellent craft is tied to an ill-conceived project.

Which touches on the final questionable aspect of The Hobbit, the choice to film and present it (in certain theaters) in 48 frames per second. The reasoning behind that choice makes sense — in full-frame 3D at high speed, The Hobbit appears as close as any big budget film ever has to the way we actually see the world with our eyes (as opposed to the way it is presented on film). The dichotomy is interesting, offering a fantastically-designed, romantic film in as close to realism as possible, putting the viewer in a you-are-there proximity.

That’s the idea, anyway. How well that works is up to each individual viewer, but it’s important to keep in mind that it does not look like film as you know it, in any shape or form. There is a tendency to think of it as “cheap,” because of the psychological link of 24 frames per second to “expensive film” and higher frame rate to “cheap video,” but it’s not.

There are limitations, however. The lack of motion blur makes it harder to hide some of the cracks in complex computer graphics, particularly when trying to marry live actors to digital elements. Radagast on his sled is the most egregious example, often looking like a person standing in front of a rear projection. It also works best with slow camera moves and quiet scenes; the faster the motion, the more likely the characters will appear to be sped up like an old silent film.

It’s probably not for everyone, which may sum up The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the best. Made with the best of intentions and the height of craft, but not always with enough forethought as to how it will actually come across when finished. If you’re a tremendous fan of the series already, none of this may matter, but the casual viewer will be checking their watch.

Cast: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins; Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey; Cate Blanchett as Galadriel; Hugo Weaving as Elrond; Christopher Lee as Saruman the White; Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown; Ian Holm as elderly Bilbo Baggins; Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins; Andy Serkis as Gollum; Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield; Graham McTavis as Dwalin; Ken Stott as Balin; Aidan Turner as Kili; Dean O’Gorman as Fili; Mark Hadlow as Dori; Jed Brophy as Nori; Adam Brown as Ori; John Callen as Oin; Peter Hambleton as Gloin; William Kircher as Bifur; James Nesbitt as Bofur; Stephen Hunter as Bombur; Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin; Jeffrey Thomas as Thror; Mike Mizrahi as Thrain; Manu Bennett as Azog; Conan Stevens as Bolg; Lee Pace as Thranduil; Benedict Cumberbatch as The Necromancer.

[The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens 12/14/12.]
(New Line Cinema; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer -- http://www.mgm.com/; WingNut Films; Warner Bros. Pictures -- http://www.warnerbros.com/; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- http://www.thehobbit.com/; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Facebook) -- http://www.facebook.com/TheHobbitMovie)
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Review by . Review posted Friday, December 14th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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