Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Non Spoiler Review:
It feels odd writing a review of The Hobbit given it's taken so many years for it to get off the ground and on screen. But here we are, with an unexpected journey and three movie arc once again. After much negotiations and juggling directors (Peter Jackson to Guillermo del Toro and back again), Jackson finally returns to Middle Earth. 

Also returning is Ian McKellen as Gandalf (could it even be considered that he wouldn't?). Martin Freeman (Hot Fuzz) takes the role of young Bilbo (from Ian Holm in Lord of the Rings). Cate Blanchet and Hugo Weaving also reprise their roles as Galadriel and Elrond. There are a host of dwarves, among them Aidan Turner (Being Human) and Richard Armitage as Prince Thorin, and of course Andy Serkis is Gollum. This is a much more relaxed and quiet Middle Earth than we're used to. And as Elrond even comments, they've been at peace for decades. Unless you're a dwarf, things are pretty good, and especially so if you're a Hobbit.

It will be years before we can reflect whether the decision to make a trilogy rather than a two-parter was a wise move, but the immediate question is if the first chapter can stand on its own merits.

The movie opens with Ian Holm reprising his role as old Bilbo, planning for his party we saw in Lord of the Rings and finishing his written account of his grand adventure. There we get a long flashback to the fall of the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor at the hands claws of the dragon Smaug. As the actual story begins, we find young Bilbo enjoying his leisurely Hobbit-life in the Shire which is brought to an end by Gandalf's decision to involve him in the quest of a band of thirteen dwarves to reclaim Erebor and its treasures. With his house overrun by rowdy dwarves, Bilbo opts to leave behind his quiet existence to go on an adventure. Meanwhile, one of Thorin's mortal enemies long thought dead learns he still lives and hounds them on their way.

The reviews I've read appear to be unusually harsh, but a lot of that is likely due to the decision to make a trilogy out of two movies, as well as the now infamous 48 fps. I saw it in IMAX 3D and thought it looked stunning. However, full disclosure—I do have an HD television with a high frame rate, so I'm completely used to the visuals that everyone is complaining about, and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary, aside from a couple of instances—one such scene during a rainstorm where it seemed like the characters weren't getting wet.

The Hobbit is definitely lighter in tone, but certainly not to the extent that I had feared. Yes, there are two songs (one of which is a decent, poignant ballad), and the extended dinner scene everyone is bitching about is really the only case of outright lightheartedness. The story of the dwarves is serious and relevant. They are a displaced people in search of a homeland (roaming from Erebor to Moria, and dispersed through Middle Earth in the years since). A contrast is drawn between Bilbo's love of the quiet life of his homeland and the dwarf diaspora who have none.

The cast was fantastic. Ian McKellen, of course, needs no more accolades. He's allowed to play a far more lighter Gandalf the Grey. Rhadagast may have been a tad over the top, but nothing excruciating. Even the dwarves, which could easily have become silly, all manage to provide some gravitas where necessary, and the noble heir apparent Thorin shines as a true leader in seeking to bring his people home. It's Martin Freeman who really claims the role of Bilbo, though.

At three hours, I was enjoying being immersed in Middle Earth again, revisiting Rivendale and the Shire, seeing younger versions of characters and figuring out who was related to whom in Lord of the Rings, while knowing full well what lies ahead brewing in the darkness for them.

As far as the overall plot, there were a couple of questionable decisions. While I really love that Ian Holm returned as old Bilbo, I doubt the necessity of showing Frodo again. I realize Jackson wanted to firmly tie The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings to make a complete epic, but the beginning seemed almost too overt (ie...Frodo noting that he was rushing off to meet Gandalf's arrival for Bilbo's party).

While a lot of the first act of the film is Gandalf assembling the dwarves and Bilbo on their quest, it is broken up with some effective flashbacks detailing the fall of Erebor as well as Thorin's battle with the white orc. I've read a little of the differences between the book and Jackson's interpretation. And while some are bored by the elements of the White Council or Radaghasts's investigations of the Necromancer, I found all these things quite compelling. As a fan of the machinations of Game of Thrones, watching Galadriel, Sauroman, Elrond and Gandalf debate the threat of this strange Necromancer, and the alarming appearance of an artifact that shouldn't exist, really wove a dark thread through the film, hammered home when Bilbo crosses paths with Gollum and claims the One Ring.

One other criticism was the Goblin king, which did feel very out of place. After Lord of the Rings showed us animalistic hordes of goblins, we get a large and sloppy goblin king who speaks in the King's English and manages to rattle off a bit of a song. This ends up in an outrageous chase scene which was the only instance I really noticed the special effects looked fake, and managed to stretch my suspension of disbelief in their survival (yes, I realize this is Middle Earth and they're about to face a dragon). A little more restraint here and there would have benefited a lot.

I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. While not as dark as The Fellowship of the Ring, it was still quite serious for the most part, and just as effective as the first installment in the trilogy. I definitely recommend it be seen on the big screen, and as someone familiar with the frame rate, I can attest that you get used to it very quickly. If Middle Earth, Game of Thrones, or anything else remotely epic is not your thing, then don't attempt to put yourself through it. The second movie will very much determine the necessity of a third film (beyond the cash grab), but for now The Hobbit is finally on screen and will fit nicely with my Lord of the Rings set. 

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