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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)

Running Time: 2:49

Release Date: 12/14/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 13, 2012

It takes a long while to become reacquainted to the idea that we are not in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth but Peter Jackson's. Despite the fact that Jackson and his co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (This time joined by Guillermo del Toro) have already secured their vision of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with a massive and exceptionally executed three-part adaptation, Tolkien's first story to take place in the realm of Middle-earth is a different beast entirely—far less concerned with history, politics, and language than its literary sequel. The Hobbit is a simple story told with wit and the spark of the boundless imagination that would create an alternate world and mythology.

It is clear from the start that Jackson and his co-writers are not merely going to settle for book's tale of a hobbit realizing there is more to the world than his boring life and embarking on an adventure to stop a dragon in some far-off land. The film opens with two prologues—one setting up a direct connection to Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and the other establishing the long-ago events that are a direct precursor to the story at hand—and twice has our hero, as an older hobbit, begin the narrative by scribbling down his story. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Yes, as the subtitle suggests, this is only the first part) is clumsy where Tolkien's book is streamlined—filling in the gaps where the novel is vague (Jackson and company have the advantage or, depending on one's point of view, curse of hindsight).

The film is also a welcome return to Middle-earth—one that, appropriately, seems more playful (though still dangerous when necessary) than the one to which we've become accustomed in Jackson's previous adaptations. The sense of history is missing, and in its place is the tone of a fine fairy tale, overcome on occasion by the screenplay's repeated summoning of ancillary characters to hint at a future where a greater evil must be defeated. Indeed, the titular character seems of very little importance until the film's final act when, like in Tolkien's book (or, at least, his updated version of it), his role in setting into motion future events comes into focus.

The story proper begins with Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman, whose performance and character is not allowed to come into view until the last act) afternoon pipe being interrupted by Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a wizard famous in the parts of the Shire for his fireworks. There's an adventure to be had, the wizard informs the hobbit, who is weary of the idea. Later that night, dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the grandson of the last great dwarf king, overrun Bilbo's home, clean his pantry of food, sing, and test Bilbo's willingness to join them as their company's burglar. The goal is reclaim the dwarves' kingdom, which was invaded and occupied by the terrible dragon Smaug long ago.

Jackson and his co-writer's demand a lot of willingness on our part to go along with the film's lengthy, multiple introductions, but when the company hits the road (After Bilbo stands in his house, silently ruminating on how quiet, peaceful, and boring it is after a night of dwarf merriment), the film's pacing of trials only lets up for non-textual interludes. A brief respite in Rivendell, home of some of the remain elves in Middle-earth, has Gandalf expressing his concerns about a gathering darkness to Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), whose allegiance still seems to be on the side of good. Meanwhile, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), another wizard with a fondness for nature, has good reason to believe there is a deeper evil at work in the world in the form of a magician working dark deeds in the forest.

Save for passing mentions, these scenes have no real basis in the novel, and they only serve to slow down the already expansive journey. The film presents that journey as a series of false starts (An episode with three very talkative and very, very dense trolls is a highlight and offers the first instance of a few dei ex machina within the story; Tolkien, obviously aware of his proclivity for using the device, invented a new word—eucatastrophe­—as a substitute), and it's not until the company leaves Rivendell that the narrative finds its footing and emotional center.

Here we have Bilbo's tense encounter with Gollum (once again impeccably voiced and performed for motion-capture by Andy Serkis) in a standoff of riddles, where freedom or a gruesome death are the prizes on the line, while his companions face certain torture or death among a goblin horde. The plight of the dwarves—never a collection of individuals but a collective of diminutive rowdiness—has some weight after Bilbo accidentally insults their lack of a homeland and later gives a rallying speech of humbleness and sincerity. If Bilbo seems a supporting character in his own story for much of the film, the screenplay ensures he has recovered his eponymous status in the final act.

Like the book upon which it is based, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is slighter than Tolkien's massive sequel and Jackson's preceding films in this world. There is no intrinsic harm in this, but one cannot help but feel that Jackson has that impression of the material. It's a clunky start, but by the time the film is finished, we feel back at home in Jackson's Middle-earth. And they haven't even gotten to the dragon yet.

Note: The film was shot and in some theaters will be projected at 48 frames per second (Theaters will denote such presentations as "High Frame Rate" or "HFR"), which is double the industry standard. Speaking only from personal experience, I never became acclimated to the presentation's quirks—random moments in which characters and camera movements seem to moving too quickly (the "Benny Hill effect," as one colleague accurately described it), a strange cheap-looking appearance to the much of the film, the unnatural quality of the whole thing (odd, given that the higher the frame rate, the closer it should, in theory, come close to matching the way the human eye perceives). In fact, it was not until I saw the film projected at 24 fps (in 3-D) that I felt I could write a review in good conscience.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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