Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Of all of the movies that I have seen and loved, there are none more important to me than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm that guy who watches the extended versions multiple times, indulges in hours and hours of special features, and even listened to the commentary tracks on all three films. "Return of the King" is in contention for my favorite film of all time. Suffice it to say, I was monitoring the production of "The Hobbit" as closely as possible to see where they were going to take the story that was so precious to me (pun intended, obviously). I couldn't have been more excited for this film, though I went in with slightly tempered expectations. Of course, this film had a bit of controversy surrounding it with the first use of 48 frames per second. While I did not see it in the higher frame rate, I have heard it is a polarizing feature. Some reviews site it as a brilliant innovation providing higher clarity, while others call it a distraction and almost like a "soap opera" in quality. I did see this film in 3-D, and (because my work got me the ticket) I even tried the D-Box technology used in many seats in Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theaters. While initially a little distracting, the format eventually became second-nature and I can see why some people might enjoy it.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo, the main protagonist from the Lord of the Rings series. Bilbo is an ordinary, non-adventure-taking hobbit who gets swept up with a group of dwarves at the behest of Gandalf the Grey. Gandalf needs to find a "burglar" for their journey to steal something very valuable in their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo is apprehensive to join their company, as he enjoys his creature comforts surrounding him at Bag End. However, following a rambunctious party with all thirteen dwarves, Bilbo awakens to find his home completely restored to normal with a contract for him to sign if he changes his mind. Bilbo takes the challenge and runs to catch up to the company, many of whom were not expecting the hobbit to join them, and so their "unexpected journey" begins.

I heard many grumblings about the first half-hour of this film being arduous and slow paced. Having experienced it for myself, I can honestly say that I can see how some people might think that, though I never experienced boredom during this set up. Perhaps it has something to do with my love for the original trilogy, but any amount of time spent in this world was time well spent, in my opinion. Peter Jackson clearly loves these books, and when he's projecting his vision of Tolkein's universe on the big screen that attitude is infectious. It's so nice to see a big-budget franchise being brought to life by someone so passionate about the source material.

The technical aspects of this film have all been stepped up a notch, particularly with Gandalf and the hobbit/dwarves. Those scenes were cleverly crafted in the original trilogy so as to keep the illusion of their difference in size, but this time the effect is completely seamless. When I first saw the trailer, I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to tell the dwarves apart, and while for a couple of dwarves I do struggle, they all have their own distinct personalities for the most part.

This film instantly drops you into the world of Middle Earth, with brilliant set and costume designs as well as beautiful scenery courtesy of New Zealand. Not only that, but recurring characters like Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel provide connective tissue that takes the movie one step further in tying it to the original series. The performances from this cast are terrific across the board. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, showing great potential as well as taking small steps in his evolution to becoming the globe-trotting adventurer we know him as in the Lord of the Rings. Ian McKellen is just as good as always, and the party of dwarves also brings their own unique flavor to the ensemble, particularly Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. He evokes a similar gravitas and commanding presence as Aragorn that I hadn't previously seen with dwarves. The best scene in the movie, however, is probably the altercation between Bilbo and Gollum. I am continuously amazed at how wonderfully Jackson is able to depict the tragic nature of Gollum's obsession and bring new elements to light each time.

Unlike the Lord of the Rings, however, this isn't as epic or grand. There are far more comedic and light-hearted elements found in this film than the original trilogy, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The premise of this film is the adventure, and there are more tussels and bombastic escapes as a result. However, there are interesting story threads that will surely come into play later, such as the oft-eluded to "Necromancer". The final scene in this movie also did a great job of piquing my interest for the sequel, "The Desolation of Smaug" coming out next December.

Watching this film I got the distinct impression that this was setting itself up to be the perfect lead up to the Lord of the Rings films. There are wonderfully poetic moments in this film where Bilbo shows the kind of inner strength later personified in his nephew Frodo, as well as moving lines from Gandalf that remind us of the symbolism at play here. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a very enjoyable experience, and I have a feeling the next two films in the series are going to get even better. I give this movie a strong three and a half stars.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.