Friday, December 14, 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit-An Unexpected Journey

I admit I was debating whether or not to post this today due to the tragic events that occurred (and my prayers go out to those affected by this event). But as I began to think about this, the one thing that keeps us going is hope, love and friendship and at times the need to escape from our world. So here is my thoughts on a film that in many ways-sometimes brilliantly, sometimes awkwardly-reafirms all of that.

After a brief reintroduction to old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) as they prepare for Bilbo's birthday, we are told of the downfall of the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, whose gold and kingdom are taken over by the dragon Smaug. Several years later the heir to the Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) had decided to reclaim his homeland and has turned to the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) for help. Gathering 12 other dwarves, Gandalf picks a 13th member-Bilbo (played as a younger hobbit by Martin Freeman). At first Bilbo is reluctant to go but decides to join the quest despite his lack of experience of the oustide world and the doubts of Thorin. Along the way the group encounters hungry trolls, orcs, a white orc known from Thorin's past known as Azog and a creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) well as a gold ring that holds more power than any of them realizes.

I will admit it's been a long time since I read J.R.R. Tolkien's original novel The Hobbit. I always remember loving it, even more in some cases that The Lord of the Rings for its simpler narrative. It's that narrative that Peter Jackson and his co-writers (including original director Guillermo del Toro) have stretched out as has been announced to three movies. That explains why An Unexpected Journey is more setup than anything else with subplots being introduced that won't be resolved until the next two films. Among them the discovery of a necromancer bringing back the dead by the wizard Radagast the Brown and the continuing pursuit by Azog seeking vengeance against Thorin for cutting off his arm. I can understand why some critics are complaing about all this setup, especially since this first movie runs only 10 minutes shy of 3 hours and some of this detracts from the main story. But I think some of them are forgetting how much The Fellowship of the Ring did the same thing. That film was filled with lots of setup, long meetings and discussions before the story began to move forward and the story took hold.

What keeps the film involving at least for me was the major characters. Taking over the role of Bilbo Martin Freeman does a good job balancing the fact that the character is a fish out of water, wanting to go home but coming through when necessary. The other newcomer that stood out was Armitage who had the tougher role of Thorin, since he spends quite a bit of the movie as an unlikable, somewhat pompous dwarf whose hatreds threaten to derail the quest. However the two shining performances though come from McKellan, bringing a twinkle, humor and charm to Gandalf and Serkis, who reinhabits Gollum's skin to visceral effect. He steals the show plain and simple with his brief screen time and the game of riddles is the high point. There is also the welcome appearances of Hugo Weaving's Elrond, Cate Blanchett's Galadriel and Christopher Lee's Saurman, along with Holm and Wood. Their presence gives the film a welcome comfort zone, something that I always felt was missing in the Star Wars prequels.

Also the film is a grand display of technical wizardry. You can tell how much technology has jumped since 2003 by looking at how fleshed out Gollum is. The rest of the effects-from Azog to the Jabba the Hutt-like Orc ruler beneath the mountains to the trolls-are all brought to life vividly. There is also breathtaking shots of Middle-Earth, with Jackson's camera flying all over. If nothing else An Unexpected Journey should be seen for that. (I also will note that I saw the movie in standard 2D, not 3D or the debated 48 frames per second version that is causing much discussion. Even in standard the movie looked vibrant so I would suggest just go with that).

I'm not going to say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey reaches the heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a little flabby I'll admit but it's also a loving return to a land many fell in love with years ago. The film is comfort and as I said at the start a reminder of the things that matter most and that needs to be restated from time to time. Rating: *** 1/2 out of 4.

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