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Saturday, December 15, 2012

'The Hobbit' Brings Back Jackson, Dwarves, And Epic Length

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:  3 ½ out of 5
Gandalf:  Bilbo Baggins, I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure.

And so it begins; another tale of perilous, fantastical traveling.  I think it is funny that I went into The Hobbit knowing incredibly little about the actual plot, only to find that there was not a whole lot to learn.  I have not read any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and have only seen trailers for the film, which seemed very light on story.  Apparently it was because there is really not much there, at least for this first film, in a brand new Middle-Earth-based trilogy.  ‘An Unexpected Journey’ re-introduces us to this world that director Peter Jackson brought to life in his highly acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the first part of a new trilogy based on The Hobbit, which proceeds those ‘Rings’ films.  In terms of making things grand, I was once again impressed by the scope of the production, but I was only just happy to have seen a good portion of this story, as opposed to being enthralled all the way through the film’s epic runtime.  There is a lot there, but I am not sure how much was needed.

Following an opening prologue that provides a bookend for the story being told and sets the stage for what the overall goal appears to be, we are introduced to a younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who, one day, is curiously encountered by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).  Confused, Bilbo tries to retreat into his home and evade Gandalf, but learns later on that he has been tricked into throwing a party for a large group of dwarves.  Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Bilbo soon learns that these dwarves are on a quest across Middle-Earth to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the massive supply of treasure within, which was invaded and taken from them by Smaug the dragon.  It turns out that Gandalf has recruited Bilbo to be a part of this journey, which Bilbo agrees to.  From there, Bilbo and the rest of the group will go on an adventure where they will encounter cave trolls, meet those from the Elven stronghold of Rivendell, watch a battle of rock lobsters monsters, battle goblins, and proceed through many other dangers.  This will be a lot for a little hobbit from the Shire to go through.

To provide some context for my thoughts on this film universe, I am not the biggest Lord of the Rings fan.  I definitely admire the trilogy and think the films have absolutely fantastic elements within them, but it is not the trilogy that I revisit often.  So with that said, I was fine with going back to Middle-Earth to see an all-new story.  Given that I am not familiar with the source material, it made no difference to me if there were one or three films, as long as the movies were good.  The only real surprise I had was the fact that despite being turned into three movies, for what I know is a fairly short book (especially compared to LOTR), this first movie still clocked in at two hours and forty-five minutes.  So now the question for me became, “would it be worth it?”




The answer is mixed.  I did like this movie and like a lot of specific things about it, but that will have to wait.  First thing to address will have to be the lengthy runtime for a film that does not have much story to tell and seems noticeable this time around.  This first part of The Hobbit plays at a much more episodic level than Lord of the Rings, which certainly does a lot to establish certain characters and provide for some wild locations and visual effects sequences, but still had me wishing for a more concise story.  It is easy to make fun of the ‘Rings’ films, by characterizing them as movies about a bunch of people walking, but I at least felt a sense of purpose in their journey.  The stakes feel considerably lower in The Hobbit.  I also know the story is supposed to be more lighthearted, but the tone of the film does have the same sort of seriousness, as they have had in the past.  Because of this, I feel like jumping from place to place in this story is not necessarily served the best, when I am not as involved in the journey being presented, which features multiple stops along the way.


I did mention there being plenty of good in this film and that is true.  To start, I think Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo Baggins.  I have been watching Freeman since his days on BBC’s The Office, and he has since gone on to star in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlock, and is now the lead in a Peter Jackson fantasy epic.  Good for him.  He brings a wonderful and humorous straight-man element to all the craziness that surrounds him and keeps things fairly grounded from his perspective.  I will be curious to see how his character evolves further over the course of this series.  Additionally, McKellen continues to be a wonderful presence in this film, as he brings warmth to this film that is welcome, while also exuding knowledge and experience.  The fact that he gets awesome battle moments in this film is a bonus.


Galadriel:  Mithrandir, why the Halfling?
Gandalf:  Why Bilbo Baggins?  Perhaps it is because I am afraid and he gives me courage.
The other main presence is newcomer to the franchise, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, who is going to have to do more in the following entries to get me more on his side.  Armitage is fine, but the character is given little to do beyond act as the gruff leader of this dwarf party, who is a real jerk to Bilbo throughout.  There are plenty of small appearances by familiar faces in this film as well, including Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee, but they are more or less just stopping by, as opposed to bringing anything that stands out performance wide; with the exception of Gollum.  Andy Serkis continues to nail this character, just as he did in the previous films.  His vocal and physical motion-captured work is fantastic and enlivened by the wonderful effects work, which brings me to the next topic.

From a production standpoint, regardless of how necessary seeing all these sights may have been, they all do look pretty fantastic.  The work done to combine actual New Zealand locations with various miniatures and CGI effects continues to look incredible.  I will say that it was fairly noticeable that there were more computer orcs and other normal-sized creatures, as opposed to practical makeup being utilized this time around, among other areas where computer work completely took over, but it was rare that I was taken out of the experience.  Middle-Earth still feels like a living, breathing world and it manages to effectively create all new perspectives on a place and time I’ve previously visited in three other features.




Jackson and his crew managed to add a bit of ambition in separating this film visually in a sense, as both the evolving technology and the thought to not create too much of a “been there, done that” feeling did a lot to keep things visually engaging.  I should note that I saw this film in 3D, but not in the 48 frames per second for my initial viewing and may add thoughts at the end of this post at a later time, once I have that perspective (I wanted an uninhibited first viewing experience, but I am curious how it looks).  With that out of the way, Jackson did effectively use 3D here, adding a level of depth to further emphasize the rich details created and seen in all of the locations visited in this film.  Given the nature of the action in this film, which has that epic quality seen in the ‘Rings’ films, but on a smaller scale, I found the 3D to be an effective way of showing off the battle scenes between dwarves and those they encountered.  For example, a lengthy sequence, which takes place in an enormous cavern and features many layers from the foreground to the background, top to bottom, became one of the more entertaining adventure sequences of this year, given the established scope.  It may not have the epic, large-scale war scenes, as The Hobbit is a different sort of film, but Jackson does have a good handle of how to make his action scenes feel exciting and well shot.


So from here it really comes down to how excited I am for the next film, The Desolation of Smaug, which will be released December 2013.  One would assume that if you saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, you have inadvertently roped yourself into a three-film series.  Even if I did not like this film, I would be seeing the sequels, but fortunately I did like it.  It is a unfortunate that this first entry feels like an overlong story that has a literal break in it and a cut to end credits, as opposed to one with enough of a fully formed arc, where I could simply watch it and not necessarily need to watch the others, but that is where the film stands for me.  Then again, I still have not warmed up to Fellowship of the Ring¸ as much as I have for the other entries in that trilogy.  While I had issues with both first entries in these Jackson trilogies, I did only think they could get better and if you are far more into these films than I am, then you should be plenty satisfied.




Much like the film, my review is overlong.  All one really needs to know regarding my opinion on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that I think the story in this film is much simpler and lower in stakes than what went down in Lord of the Rings.  Because of that, the episodic structure hurts the impact of what this film was trying to accomplish, yet I still admire a lot about it.  The visuals are fantastic, there are some really engaging adventure set pieces, Gollum is always a highlight, and Bilbo and Gandalf are characters I will happily follow into the next film.  And that next film has a gold-loving dragon, so in 2013, expect a follow-up of similar proportions.

[Note: After now having seen the film in 48 FPS, I can say that it certainly made the action look pretty fantastic in some instances, but for the most part, the effect that it gives off visually is not something that I would prefer.  I wouldn't say it's bad and soul crushing or some other extreme, in the same way that I have heard many others describe it as, but it is certainly something quite noticeable and will be interested to see how it plays a part in the future of big spectacle films.  I should also point out that the group I saw it with all really dug the look.]

Bilbo Baggins:  I know you doubt me.  I know you always have.  I often think of Bag End.  That's where I belong.  That's home.  You don't have one.  It was taken from you, but I will help you get it back if I can.
Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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