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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I have a strong appreciation for the works of JRR Tolkien. I grew up loving both The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings saga. I’ve read the books numerous times and played countless computer and console games based on the world, and I even find the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings to be one of my guilty pleasures (though I cannot say the same for the atrocious Rankin-Bass films). I’ll never forget my excitement upon the release of Director Peter Jackson’s foray into the larger end of Tolkien’s saga. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy of wonderment on par with the original, unaltered Star Wars trilogy, and only rivaled in its epic scope and overall quality by Nolan’s recent Dark Knight trilogy. In recent years there had been much discussion of a Hobbit film that would serve as the obvious prequel to this Academy Award winning trilogy. At first there was to be just one Hobbit film, and then when Guillermo Del Toro was initially chosen to direct there would then be two films; at first an adaptation of The Hobbit and then a “bridging film” between it and the original trilogy. In the final days of his involvement, Del Toro abandoned this plan and opted instead for two films to cover the Hobbit in total. After Del Toro stepped down, Jackson returned to helm the project. After he completed filming, Jackson announced, after adapting The Hobbit, material from the appendicies of The Return of the King, and inventing some scenarios from whole-cloth, there would then be THREE films. The question is, does it work? Or is this Jackson’s version of the Star Wars’ much maligned prequel trilogy?

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, replacing Ian Holm, though he appears in the film’s framing sequence) is visited by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan) who is seeking the aforementioned Hobbit to join him on an adventure. While initially recalcitrant of ending his relaxed life-style, Bilbo quickly changes his tune when visited that night by 13 Dwarves, including deposed Prince Theoden (Richard Armitage) who make a joyful ruckus of his home. Bilbo, eventually coming around to not wanting to be left out of the fun, decides to “go on an adventure” and joins the Dwarves and Gandalf to help Thorin reclaim his family’s ancestral home and wealth which is currently under the watchful eye of the evil dragon Smaug. To summarize the rest would be like trying to summarize a really good Dungeons and Dragons campaign and eliminates some of the fun, but needless to say it includes three talking trolls, a maurading band of Orcs that hunt the Dwarven company, A slovenly Goblin King, wizards, the whisperings of a rising evil known only as the Necromancer, and an old friend from the previous trilogy that is obsessed with a unique piece of jewelry.

The film is long, at around 2 hours and 45 minutes, Jackson covers about the first six chapters of The Hobbit, and in between set pieces for each chapter Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Del Toro incorporate elements that provide foreshadowing to the events of The Lord of the Rings. In places, this element works quite well, such as the initial scenes detailing Gandalf’s wizard colleague Radagast the Brown (Sylvestor McCoy) being the first to encounter the growing threat of the Necromancer, in other areas it hits like a dull thud, such as when the same character is chased on his rabbit-drawn sled by the band of orcs reminding this reviewer a little too much of a certain pod racing scene. The material itself is relatively lighter, as befitting its source (the Dwarves breaking into song like a Ren-fairre troupe) but for what was originally a 270 plus page children’s novel its very clear that much padding was used to flesh out each and every scene. Every major story beat is punctuated by some kind of action sequence: They meet the trolls, they’re chased by the orcs, they withstand the battle of the stone giants, they’re taken captive by the Goblin King, and they have the conclusory battle with Azog and his orc gang. This pacing is clearly a deliberate attempt to match the tone of the foreboding tone of the Fellowship of the Ring, creating a sense of danger and darkness that wasn’t present before in most scenes. This again isn’t inherently a negative trait, but the film does attain a sense of long-windedness. The initial 45 minutes of the film is dedicated to the Dwarves arrival, and while charming, it begins to plod on a bit longer than it needs to. There are a few additional scenes that also tack on the running time as well, including the interminable Rivendell sequence and the Stone Giants setpiece, the former could have been shaved by about 10 minutes or so, the latter could have been excised entirely.

Another issue is the lack of characterization for most of the secondary characters. Throughout, we get a good sense of who Bilbo is, along with this iteration of Gandalf, and Thorin receives a wonderfully strong backstory, sort of filling the Aragorn role of the deposed royalty, and his conflict with Azog is possibly my favorite addition in the film. Thorin’s hatred for the White Orc adds a sense of emotional quotient to the proceedings that was missing in the original tale. Unfortunately, these are the only characters that receive such a fleshing out. Short of Bofur (James Nesbitt), who not only resembles All Things Must Pass era George Harrison but also gets some very nice scenes with Bilbo, I could tell you very little else about any of the other Dwarves, nor could I identify any of them beyond the fat one, Bombur (Stephen Hunter), the old one Balin (Ken Stott), and the young ones Kili and Fili (Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman). I hope in the subsequent films, we get a chance to learn more about some of this party though if the pacing of this film holds for the subsequent entries, there’s quite a good chance that this won’t happen; most certainly a failing in the script.
With that said, there are a number of positives worth mentioning; Freeman is an absolute delight as Bilbo underplaying the role with a stoicism rather than coming across as overtly cowardly. It’s a unique choice and one that I found to appreciate. His character is also given a complete character arc, which gives the film some sense of closure by the time the credits roll. McKellan and Armitage are terrific, and while the story beats goes on a little too long its always a delight to see Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) again, providing some prequel-seeding for the battle with Sauron in the original trilogy. But, as predicted by most, the absolute stand-out scence is the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis). There’s a genuine sense of tension that, despite the prequel problem of knowing the outcome, is still incredibly earned. I remain aghast that Serkis doesn’t receive some kind of awards consideration for his performance as the pitiful Gollum, as he is absolutely magnetic. The sequence itself actually breathes life back into the film in perhaps its saggiest segment (pre-Goblin King). Jackson also leaves us with just hints of Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch, or soon to be), these hints leave the audience wanting quite a bit more, which is as strong a compliment as I can possibly give.

After seeing the film, and reflecting on it a bit, its unfinished nature makes grading it quite difficult. At no point was I ever outright bored, but I did feel a sense of over-length and that scenes could have been trimmed here or there to make for a tighter experience. I get the sense that rather than create an additional extended cut later for home viewing, Jackson decided to just put everything he had on screen, for better or worse. Your level of appreciation for his work here will depend upon how much you’re a Tolkien devotee. I’m not necessarily sure if this is a film for the unintiated, as some character introductions carry the weight of their actions in the original trilogy and some presupposed knowledge of their importance (I speak almost solely of the council at Rivendell). After seeing it, I can understand the need to break up the story into two films, there is certainly enough there that warrants it once fleshed out, though I do still question the need for three films.

The film comes in 4 different formats, 2D, 24 fps 3D, 48 fps 3D, and 3D Imax. The viewing I caught was of the 48 fps variety. It’s unique to be sure, as the images are incredibly crisp in the live-action work. The best comparison I can make is that its the theater equivalent of Blu-ray and the high frame rate actually makes the 3D much more tolerable for the eye. The CGI elements do come across as a bit more video game-esque in this format at times, particularly in its conclusion, but 48 fps is considered the ideal format by Jackson in which to see the film. It certainly is the way I would recommend seeing it, as there are so few visual leaps forward in the medium, we should applaud these attempts as they come. I do plan to take in a 2D viewing at some point, though that will likely be once it arrives on Blu-Ray.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a good film, though it falls short of the work in the original trilogy due to a sense of ponderousness and a lack of strong characterization for some of its core cast. Despite those qualms it is a fun work that will leave you excited for what Jackson has up his sleeves next (Spoilers: spiders, lots of spiders to my chagrin). It isn’t an oscar-worthy film, but it is a very satisfying one, and sometimes that is good enough.
I give it 3 out of 4 stars (or a B if you prefer), though this could improve as the trilogy is completed.
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