13 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman is shown in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

There's no other way to say it: Peter Jackson has done it again.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is an absolute triumph, possessing all the magic, adventure and excitement of his landmark "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

With the "Rings" movies, Jackson crafted one of the great epics in the history of cinema. Large-scale filmmaking with unprecedented visual effects combined with a moving, intimate, human story of friendship, love, cooperation, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and how even the people who seem the most insignificant of all have the power to change the world—all in a fantastical land that still feels like a place we might be able to visit.

With the three "Rings" films raking in billions of dollars worldwide and bringing home a host of awards (including an 11-for-11 Oscar sweep for the final installment, "The Return of the King"), all that's unexpected about "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is that it took nine years to find its way to the big screen and that it is the first in a trilogy based on that one book by J.R.R. Tolkien, published about a decade and a half before "The Lord of the Rings," that introduced the world of Middle-earth and the race of the diminutive, comfort-loving hobbits.

Jackson brought back much of his creative team, including writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (Guillermo del Toro, who originally was set to direct, also shares the screenplay credit), and while the setting is familiar and echoed musical cues help orient us further, "The Hobbit" is very much its own film [-] lighter in tone, funnier, faster paced. Structured much like "The Fellowship of the Ring," a prologue tells of how the treasure-hoarding dragon Smaug drove a band of dwarves from its homeland, the kingdom of Erabor, and how these dwarves, following the lead of their would-be king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), have lived in exile ever since.

Ian McKellen is shown in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
Sixty years before the events of "The Lord of the Rings," the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) arrives at Bag End, a cozy little hole in the ground that the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) calls home. That night, 13 dwarves, led by Thorin, in need of a "burglar" to help them in their quest to retake their mountain home, find their way to Bilbo's doorstep, as well. (With so many characters introduced virtually all at once, few leave a lasting impression beyond their physical characteristics—the old one, the fat one, the bald one, the young ones, the one with the hearing aid—though attentive "Rings" viewers should recognize a couple names.) Bilbo reluctantly agrees to join the dwarves and the adventure is on.

More background information is relayed, much of it enriching Thorin's story, giving it an epic quality lacking in the breezy nature of Tolkien's book and creating a villain to tide us over until the company reaches the dragon much later in the trilogy. Things start to feel a bit scattershot after confrontations with trolls and orcs, and spending some time scampering about the forest with the addled old wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Yet it's all riveting, and a sense of calm washes over the action when we reach Rivendell and more familiar faces.

Goblins and orcs are the foes in the climactic battles, during which Bilbo loses his way and finds himself in a life-or-death game of riddles with a mysterious creature known as Gollum. He finds himself a nice, shiny ring, too.

Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) is shown in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

As impressive and groundbreaking as Gollum was the first time around, he's even more astounding now in this, the showpiece scene of the movie. Brought to life by both the voice and motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis, he has a weight and solidity to him, and an expressiveness to his face the likes of which has not been seen before. He is the most believable computer-generated character ever created. He appears only in this scene in the book, so I'm curious to see how Jackson uses him in the next two movies.

As Bilbo, Freeman puts his considerable comedic skills to good use, especially in the impromptu dwarf dinner party scene at Bag End (no one plays exasperation quite as well as he does), while McKellen is one of those rare actors who makes a movie better whenever he speaks. With so much time devoted to his back story, this film is as much Thorin's story as Bilbo's, and Armitage brings the appropriate steely determination to the role.

At 170 minutes, "An Unexpected Journey" is shorter than any of "The Lord of the Rings" films, though with additions to the book, including material linking these events to those of the "Rings" movies, this already feels a bit like an extended edition[-]which is fine by me; I see the extended editions of "The Lord of the Rings" as the definitive versions, and I still want to see more whenever I watch them.

Plenty more of "The Hobbit" is on the way: "The Desolation of Smaug" in December 2013 and "There and Back Again" in summer 2014.

(NOTE: I saw "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in the much-discussed High Frame Rate 3-D, which presents the film in 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24. Though a bit jarring at first, my eyes quickly adapted to the incredibly smooth, sharp, detailed images. I've never seen anything like it, and 3-D has never looked better, not even in "Avatar." This is the future of film projection.)

Greg’s Grade: A

(Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images. 170 minutes.)

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