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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson

CAST:

Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood

REVIEW:

A decade ago, Peter Jackson took us to Middle Earth and raised epic fantasy adventure to a high bar that all that followed in its wake would be hard-pressed to equal, let alone surpass. Ironically but probably inevitably, Jackson himself has fallen short of that herculean task with the first installment of the prequel trilogy, but while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not as consistently enthralling as The Lord of the Rings, it is still an enjoyable adventure worth going on.

the_hobbit_an_unexpected_journey1The story is well-known to legions of fantasy fans (though Jackson does some padding). After a framing opening set immediately before the start of The Fellowship of the Ring, with the elderly Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) telling his young nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) of his adventures, we flashback to sixty years earlier. Fussy, mild-mannered, unadventurous young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has his well-ordered existence turned upside down when his cozy burrow in the Shire is invaded out of the blue by an old acquaintance, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a horde of Dwarves led by the exiled would-be Dwarf King Thorin (Richard Armitage). Gandalf is assisting the Dwarves on a quest to reclaim their mountain stronghold—and the massive fortune of gold that resides within—from the mighty dragon Smaug, which took it over sixty years ago and has held it ever since. To this end, they need a “burglar”, someone good at going unnoticed, and they think the unimposing young Hobbit fits the bill. Initially wanting nothing more than getting this rowdy bunch out of his quiet home, Bilbo finds a spark of adventurousness lit inside him, and tags along on impulse. But the journey will turn out to be as perilous as the destination, as they encounter Orcs, trolls, and goblins, and troubling signs begin to appear that there may be another evil, more powerful than Smaug, loose in the world…

Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Twilight: Breaking Dawn before it, the decision was made to split The Hobbit, adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s first Middle Earth novel, into multiple films, in this case three. After such a trend has emerged in popular fantasy series, it’s easy to be cynical about studios deliberately drawing things out into more installments to make more money at the box office, especially when the movies feel unnecessarily protracted. It could be justified, in my opinion, by the large amount of ground Deathly Hallows needed to cover, but while The Hobbit is not as obviously unnecessarily drawn out as Breaking Dawn, there is some fat that could have been trimmed. First published in 1937, 17 years before The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit runs 270 pages, but the first of three films bearing its name runs only 10 minutes shorter than the film adaptation of the 400 page Fellowship of the Ring.

One reason why The Hobbit falls short of the epic heights of The Lord of the Rings is simple; it was never meant to be an epic. The Hobbit was a fairly simple, straightforward fantasy adventure with a breezy pace and a much more lighthearted tone, while The Lord of the Rings was the markedly more serious and epic story. To make the two “fit” better onscreen and tie The Hobbit in closer with The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has injected more darkness into the mix and thrown in a few battle sequences. Rather than rely simply on Tolkien’s book, he has also added in material that comes not from The Hobbit, but from Tolkien’s exhaustively detailed appendices, including walk-on appearances from Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee), not to mention the opening cameos from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood.

It remains to be seen how smoothly this version of The Hobbit will play out across three films, but An Unexpected Journey feels bloated. The “modern day” prologue and the shenanigans in Bilbo’s Dwarf-invaded home drag on too long and make for a slow opening, and the pace meanders for much of the three hour running time. Jackson tries to darken the book’s fairly fluffy tone with battle sequences that would look at home in The Lord of the Rings, but the two tones don’t always fit smoothly together, making the movie feel vaguely schizophrenic, like a lightweight fantasy romp and a dark epic have been shoved together and are battling for dominance. The Hobbit has more comedy than The Lord of the Rings, but much of it is overly cartoonish. In particular, the eccentric wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and the Goblin King (voiced by Barry Humphries) are overly fatuous, and a battle between stone giants could easily have been excised and lost nothing narratively except a few superfluous minutes of screentime off a movie that’s already too long. When it comes to the action, there are times when Jackson’s attempts to echo The Lord of the Rings are too obvious. A sequence in which our band is chased through the mines of Moria by a horde of goblins is almost a carbon copy of the one in The Fellowship of the Ring, only minus the Balrog and some of the excitement. Likewise, a chase scene with Orcs chasing Radagast in his rabbit-pulled sleigh brings to mind the ring-wraiths chasing Arwen in Fellowship. The character of Thorin is basically this movie’s stand-in for Aragorn as the brooding sword-wielding warrior, right down to being an exiled would-be King with Daddy issues.

 On the other hand, there is also wonderful stuff to be found here. Everything I said about Andrew Lesnie’s sweeping, epic cinematography in my reviews of The Lord of the Rings is just as true here. Howard Shore, while occasionally throwing in snippets of his score from Rings, also manages to come up with a new running “epic hero” theme here that’s not a copy of anything previous. The visual effects, by and large, are excellent. The White Orc, Azog (voiced by Manu Bennett), is a fearsome and legitimately menacing adversary, and more than once, it’s his appearances that give the movie a kick during the meandering and unevenly paced first half. He’s also the primary cause of the final forty-five minutes picking up considerably, and the climactic cliffside face-off is tightly-paced and riveting. The council with Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman is fascinating, viewed with the foresight of what happens in The Lord of the Rings (there’s also just a simple pleasure to be had from a scene with thespians as authoritative as McKellen, Blanchett, Weaving, and Lee all playing off each other). Key scenes from the book, like the troll encounter and “riddles in the dark” are portrayed faithfully and with justice. The latter in particular is arguably the high point and most captivating scene of the entire movie. The Shire, the mines of Moria, and Rivendell look exactly the same as in The Lord of the Rings, and the tantalizing glimpses of Smaug make us want to see more (alas, we have to wait until the next installment, promisingly titled The Desolation of Smaug).

 BilboMartin Freeman, probably best-known as the lead in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and as Watson on the BBC series Sherlock (some may also remember him as the porn actor in Love Actually), is the most uncanny actor since Elijah Wood for seeming as if he were born to play a Hobbit, and he echoes Ian Holm’s mannerisms and speaking style without overdoing his imitation. Freeman seems well-cast as the young Bilbo, easily playing his flustered and fussy manner, but it seems unfair to give a final grade to his performance without seeing the next two installments and how he portrays Bilbo’s full arc. Ian McKellen puts the beard, robes, and pointy hat back on and steps back into Gandalf’s shoes as if he never left them. So too does Andy Serkis, whose extended cameo as Gollum is perhaps the most arresting sequence in the movie. Serkis had admitted to worries about being able to slip fully back into his portrayal of Gollum after so long, but he reprises his role as—seemingly–effortless as McKellen, conveying his conflicted, tormented, simultaneously creepy and pitifully wretched personality as vividly as he did in The Lord of the Rings, this time with a fraction of the screentime. Of the Dwarves, there is a small army onhand, but the only one given enough character to distinguish himself is Richard Armitage, a fairly well-known character actor in his native Britain. Armitage nicely fills the role of the brooding hero, although his Thorin isn’t up to the level of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee basically have glorified cameos, and we have opening walk-ons from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, ensuring both a sense of continuity and a spark of nostalgia.

 At one time early in production, The Hobbit was to be directed by Guillermo del Toro. While many were curious what different visual style del Toro would bring to Middle Earth, I am glad for Peter Jackson’s return (del Toro remains credited as a producer). While Jackson may have allowed more bloated self-indulgence this time around, his continuation in the director’s chair ensures that The Hobbit‘s Middle Earth seamlessly looks the same as the one in The Lord of the Rings, and while The Hobbit does not consistently rise to the level of Rings‘ magic, there are moments where it comes close. I look forward to The Desolation of Smaug. The Lord of the Rings was virtually devoid of significant faults. The same cannot be said of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but for all its flaws, Jackson’s return to Middle Earth is far from a failure. The journey isn’t as consistently enthralling as the one we went on ten years ago, but it’s still fantasy adventure of a high caliber, with wonder and thrills, and grand filmmaking on a level seldom mounted. So far, Bilbo’s unseen “great adventure” has been done more justice than not. Let’s hope the second and third installments of this prequel trilogy maintain the same level, or improve upon it.

 ***1/2

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