Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey/ **** (PG-13)

Bilbo Baggins: Martin Freeman
Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Thorin: Richard Armitage
Balin: Ken Scott
Dwalin: Graham McTavish
Bofur: James Nesbitt
Bombur: Stephen Hunter
Fili: Dean O’Gorman
Kili: Aidan Turner
Radagast: Sylvester McCoy
Great Goblin: Barry Humphries
Old Bilbo: Ian Holm
Frodo: Elijah Wood
Elrond: Hugo Weaving
Galadriel: Cate Blanchett
Saruman: Christopher Lee
Gollum: Andy Serkis

New Line Cinema and MGM Studios present a film directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro. Based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Running time: 169 min. Rated PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images).

What is it that makes a great filmmaker? While range of subject matter and the ability to present different visions with skill can be a measure of greatness in this art, more often a filmmaker’s greatness lies within his ability to present one particular style with originality and power. The same can be said for great authors. There is no denying that the creator of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a great writer and storyteller. Even more so he showed an incredible skill to construct an entire world and mythology unique unto itself. Filmmaker Peter Jackson found his particular specialty in Tolkien’s Middle Earth as well. Jackson seems destined to be the visual chronicler of Tolkien’s creation. He does it with the same skill and artistry as Tolkien did himself.

“The Hobbit” comes on the heels of Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, one of the greatest technological and storytelling feats in cinematic history. As such, there is no way to avoid comparing it with its predecessor. No doubt, the fact that it is once again co-written and directed by Jackson will bring audiences into it with a degree of skepticism already built up. The fact that Jackson chose to take this single book and expand it to equal length of his “Lord of the Rings” masterpiece only adds to that skepticism. I was one of those skeptics. I didn’t understand what Jackson was trying to accomplish by taking what was a smaller and simpler story and expanding it in length to match the size and scope of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Now, that I’ve seen the film, I understand.

Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is not simply the prequel to “The Lord of the Rings”, it is another separate adventure in the same universe executed on the same epic scale. He buffers much of Tolkien’s original “Hobbit” story with historical details about Middle Earth taken from Tolkien’s posthumous works. The story is somewhat changed by the incorporation of this information into “The Hobbit” story, but instead of distracting from the plot, it only enriches it.

He brings back familiar characters from the previous films, like the ancient elf Galadriel and the wizard Sarumon. The wizard Radagast, who is only mentioned in the book, plays a larger and rather humorous role here having been fleshed out from his omission in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and from some background provided in Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales”. These additional characters’ scenes hint at what’s to come in Middle Earth but don’t overbear the story about Gandalf, 12 dwarves and one hobbit on a quest to free the dwarves’ land from a dragon named Smaug.

If you’ve read the book, you might recall it gets a little more complicated than that with the Battle of the Five Armies, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For the time being, Jackson does a good job of working some foundational details of what’s to come without distracting from the primary story of the adventure in which the dwarves and Gandalf invite Bilbo Baggins to join them. As a hobbit, Baggins is not accustomed to adventure, and Gandalf’s choice of him as the band’s “burglar” is suspect. But, Gandalf sees more in Baggins than a mere hobbit, and slowly throughout the film so do we.

There are more spectacular action sequences than I imagined there’d be because of the expansion of the story from one book into three films. The opening sequence firmly established Smaug’s menace without destroying the tradition of never revealing your enemy until his part in the story comes into play. If ever there was a character I couldn’t wait to see in the sequel, it is Smaug. There are also a couple of close run ins with the orcs who are on our heroes trail with the White orc, Azog, seeking revenge against the dwarven leader, Thorin, who relieved him of a limb.

Their run in with the Mountain Trolls is just as humorous and exciting as I remember from reading it when I was ten. There is also a rather spectacular action sequence through the belly of the mountains involving the Goblin King. Lest we not forget the original introduction of Gollum to the world, Martin Freeman wonderfully plays Bilbo’s game of riddles with the poor beast, once again played through motion capture by Andy Serkis. Freeman displays here what a good choice he was for the hobbit role, played by Ian Holm in “Lord of the Rings”, who also reprises in the opening sequence here. Freeman’s Bilbo isn’t the innocent that Elijah Wood’s Frodo is in the earlier films. He has a darker side, but he also has a braveness to him that suggests he could be more of an asset than even Gandalf might’ve imagined.

The greatest aspect in this new vision of Middle Earth that was somewhat lacking in the first set of films is a lightness to the way the characters approach their predicament. The doom and gloom of the first trilogy really only rears its head in foreshadowing and implications; but for the most part, the approach to the material this time is less grave. The are several songs from Tolkien’s original text that are tackled as if breaking into song is a normal thing for dwarves to do, and I believe it is. It seems quite natural here, and the songs are beautifully realized.

It seems a great many critics have come out with reluctant positive reviews of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, claiming that while it’s as well made as “The Lord of the Rings” it’s a little slower, a little less necessary. For my part, it might be the best movie of the bunch so far. “The Lord of the Rings”, while an excellent vision of the Tolkien’s masterpiece, is almost a little too sullen in comparison. “The Fellowship of the Rings” began the series with a nonstop breathless journey through Middle Earth. While “The Hobbit” takes a little more time, its pace suits it; and it isn’t as oppressive as the other films. While I once suffered from a common lack of anticipation for this next foray into the magical world of Tolkien, I’ve come out of this first chapter hungry for more.

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