The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is big on imagery, long on talk, and falls short in a couple of critical areas. But go see it anyways.
Upon watching the first trailer for Fall's highly anticipated The Hobbit, I was hesitant to grant it any credit beyond mere curiosity. Its older brother, the incredible Lord of the Rings trilogy, occupies a special place on most filmgoers' top 20 lists. The series touched audiences in a way that still reverberates throughout Hollywood: one cannot watch a Medieval war-epic made after 2003 without seeing LOTR's footprints somewhere. It was with this pedigree that a slow and confusing trailer appeared earlier this year, touching off speculation that perhaps Director Peter Jackson's lightning in a bottle had been spent. And while The Hobbit is slow at parts and missing any memorable action sequences, its heart still beats with the resounding pulse of Middle-earth.
Much like the path George Lucas took with Episodes I-III, Jackson sets his sights on the prequel The Hobbit and the tales contained in J.R.R. Tolkein's book. Set 60 years before Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, Sherlock) receives a visitor in Gandalf The Gray (Ian McKellen, X-Men series), who is looking for someone to join him on an adventure. Miffed by the odd request, Bilbo doesn't realize that Gandalf has secretly recruited him into a highly dangerous enterprise: the liberation of an ancient castle and its gold supply, which was commandeered by a dragon. The result scattered the dwarfs who owned the castle and its contents, leaving them leaderless and destitute. Eventually, a troupe of dwarfs descend on Bilbo's home to ravage his food supply and entice him into joining them. It's one of the movie's funniest scenes, as the home-spun Hobbit witnesses the insanity of a dwarf dinner and reacts to a lengthy contract ushering him into service. After initially refusing their invitation, Bilbo decides to join the expedition, leaving The Shire for danger and glory. It's not readily apparent why he makes this bold choice, so his decision feels rushed and out of place. The dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, Captain America: TFA) doesn't think Bilbo has the thievery skills for which Gandalf has recruited him, and Gandalf doesn't know why he's invited the hobbit either. Together, our trio and Thorin's men run into all sorts of chicanery, brought on by the appearance of The Necromancer, who has unleashed Orcs and poisoned the forest and its animals.
If little of this sounds like Tolkein's original text, you would be right. In an effort to extend the much shorter book into a trilogy, Director Jackson and Writers Guillermo del Toro (originally tasked to direct Hobbit) and Philippa Boyens (LOTR) have filled the pages with character re-writes and appearances that were never part of the tale. Added are Elfen scenes with Elrond (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix) and the beautiful Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth), plus a visit from the soon-to-be-dark magician Sauramon (Christopher Lee, Star Wars: Episode 2). Thorin's brooding warrior king (originally a comical figure in Tolkein's book) is strangely familiar to Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn, raising the question of why Jackson drew such similarities instead of re-tooling the character into something better. But that's not all. The bloated and overstretched story is filled with too many false endings that ooze with prologues,council meetings, and a propped-up blood feud that makes the lead Orc Azog look more like a local thug than a menacing creature we should fear. Much of the film's nearly three hours feels this contrived, leaving us to wonder whether the imminent Extended Edition will contain even more bloat.
One of the most unique aspects of The Hobbit will certainly create the greatest debate: the decision to present it on IMAX and 3D screens in the new 48 frames per second. Every Hollywood film has been offered in the standard 24fps, which allowed directors plenty of leeway if their sets or special effects were not up to snuff. This new rate, while exceptionally clear, takes some getting used to, especially if you're closer to the screen. The other issue it causes can be seen in action scenes, which tend to look cheap if the CGI is not up to snuff. Here, The Hobbit also suffers, scrubbing the CGI animals and baddies of every bit of grain to create an unnatural look. Jackson is at his best when he keeps the humans away from the green screen, and audiences might be better off seeing the film in the tradition frame rate. Perhaps our eyes are not quite ready for 48fps, but some of Jackson's missteps don't help Hobbit either.
And even with all of this against it, The Hobbit is still worth watching. Whether it's the familiar and diverse environment of New Zealand, the sweeping images of our heroes trekking over mountains, or Composer Howard Shore's large and beautiful soundtrack, The Hobbit feels like a house alive during the holidays: vibrant, encompassing, and welcoming. I had the same feeling after watching JJ Abrams' Star Trek, partly due to my love of Original Trek, even though I had issues with it as well. The years between franchises have been very good to the digitized Gollum (Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of Apes). His riddle scene with Bilbo is almost straight from the book, and it's one of the film's best sequences. The story of how Bilbo secures the ring and the madness which consumes Gollum will no doubt become one of the franchise's most enduring, as Jackson executes it with perfect precision. Whether it's Bilibo's sweet naivety - played exceptionally well by Freeman - or the grim and powerful Gandolf, fans will enjoy seeing these characters once more; Blanchett and Weaving are always terrific, and Armitage carries off Thorin quite well. There really isn't a bad role here, yet none which stand out. For the uninitiated, the slow start and lack of memorable action sequences will probably bore them and the children they might drag along.
In the end, The Hobbit suffers from several issues that it tries to overcome, but not without boring uninitiated audiences in the meantime. Short on sweeping action sequences, overflowing with a dizzying amount of dwarfs - none of which you will either remember or care about afterwards - and filled with far too much dialogue, The Hobbit limps along before getting somewhat interesting in Act 2. From there, it's still uneven but at least some action arrives to divert our attention. The high frame rate in 3D and IMAX might make some queasy, so be ready for an epic that's good but not great. But go see it anyways, not to fill up Jackson's pockets with cash, but because it's Lord of the Rings, the return of a franchise that's become as revered as any since the modern era, even if this version is not quite as good. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13 for intense fantasy action and frightening images, and has a runtime of 169 minutes.
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