The Shire is a peaceful place to live with its rolling hills and comfy homes. That is until a famous wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellar), visits a certain resident named Bilbo Baggins in the Shire and leaves a magical mark on the front door. Suddenly, the house is full of hungry dwarves and Gandalf announces that they are about to undertake a great adventure, including Bilbo in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”
The problem I have with the concept of the movie, ”The Hobbit,” is that Peter Jackson and company have taken the relatively slight original JRR Tolkien children’s novel and are expanding it to the same epic proportions as the much heftier “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” adaptations (2001-2003). If “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an indication, we are in for two more epic installments, totaling nearly nine hours of film viewing. This makes the concept a thing mainly for the (millions) of fans. The curious, like me, will spring for the first film but, ultimately, I almost felt cheated.
I said “almost” cheated by the first installment of “The Hobbit” because the final main act of the film spends its time on the exact thing that I loved about the 1937 novel – the meeting and mind game between frightened Bilbo and the frightening Gollum (reprised, once again, by the remarkable Andy Serkis in all his motion capture glory). This marvelous, intelligent confrontation makes the overbearing extension and embellishment of the original story palatable.
The dedicated fans of the “LotR” are going to love, love, love the copious and finely detailed special effects that even top the original trilogy. The real draw and charm to “The Hobbit,” though, is the quiet, self-effacing performance by Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Amidst all the battles, bluster and mayhem against Orcs, Trolls, Goblins and Wargs are the not-so-merry band – 13 dwarves, an ancient wizard and a scared but reluctantly adventuresome Hobbit – on their quest to take back their treasure stolen and hoarded by the giant, fire breathing dragon, Smaug.
The dwarves are led by legendary Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dethroned king of the dwarf realm, with the guidance of Gandalf. The wizard enlists Bilbo into the ranks of these fierce warriors to be the brave thief who will steel the fortune back under the watchful and greedy eye of Smaug. The path to the Lonely Mountain, the lair of the giant dragon, is wrought with peril as they must face off against not just the aforementioned monstrous creatures but also giant spiders, sorcerers and shape shifters. This is a lot to face for the diminutive Hobbit but Freeman makes you believe that Bilbo is up to the task.
The ensemble cast is huge with the 15 travelers introduced quickly in the film’s beginning but, as the adventure unfolds, only Bilbo (of course), Gandalf, Thorin and one or two of his lieutenants are given much shrift. (There are also many characters reprised from the “LotR” but I will leave that for you to see.)The focus of the film is on the many battles against bizarre creatures and are beautifully rendered in details familiar to the fans, plus the film is being released in a new high-density 48 fps format that makes these details crisp (maybe too crisp for some) and hyper clear.
I laud the filmmakers’ ambition to make something special of the classic Tolkien story but I cannot help but believe that the real goal is to duplicate the monetary success of the “LotR” franchise. Time will tell if this is a new Peter Jackson cash cow or just a bridge too far. I give it a B.
60 years before Frodo agreed to head to Mordor to destroy the ring sought by Lord Sauron, his uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, "Hot Fuzz," TV's 'Sherlock') took on another quest, traveling with a dozen dwarves to reclaim their kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, Bilbo will run into Gollum (Andy Serkis) and inherit the 'Precious' ring from the distraught Sméagol in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
Middle Earth fanatics rejoice. Cowriter (with Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro)/director Peter Jackson has delved into LOTR's 120 pages of footnotes expanding on Tolkein's earlier story to present "The Hobbit" with no stone left unturned. Others, like myself, may not be so overjoyed about a children's book adapted into an epic, overlong trilogy. Even in this very first episode, the action gets a bit redundant with the dwarves repeatedly being chased down by some group or other (Orcs! Goblins!). There's also Jackson's decision to present the first theatrical release shot in 48 frames per second 3D (film is usually shot at 24 fps) and the result, while making night scenes easier to see, still looks like overlit HDTV. See. Every. Blade. Of. Grass. If Jackson had only taken his visual effects and applied them to something new - the books of Terry Pratchett seem made for his world - it might have been raised the excitement quotient.
After a prologue which tells us how the dwarf king became obsessed with obtaining gold and how they then lost their kingdom followed by another where the elder Bilbo (Ian Holm, the LOTR's Bilbo) prepares to tell his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) the story, we're transported to the very green and grassy shire, where a contented Bilbo is dared by Gandalf (Ian McKellen, gray locks replacing LOTR's white yet clearly older 60 years earlier) to join him in an adventure. Dwarves begin arriving at the startled Hobbit's home in ones and twos, taking first his supper, then his entire larder, as they plan their journey. Bilbo opts out, but after they've gone, he signs their contract and catches up with them. Head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, "Captain America: The First Avenger") will gradually come to value the Hobbit's worth after initial suspicion.
Jackson and his cowriters are obviously trying to hook their Hobbit more completely into their earlier Rings trilogy, and so we hear and see threat of the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch, TV's 'Sherlock') and visit Rivendell and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). More interesting is a run in with three trolls who steal the dwarves horses, then decide the dwarves themselves might be tasty eating until they're outwitted by Bilbo. Later they run into the gross Great Goblin (voice of Barry 'Dame Edna' Humphries), but being chased by goblins is much the same as fighting Orcs. Jackson's visualization of the mountains themselves throwing boulders at one another as the band tries to traverse them looks like gray Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots throwing rocks. More compelling is the time given to the wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, TV's 'Doctor Who') and his attachment to the natural world. And although most of the effects are really impressive, simple things like CGI smoke and Gandalf's exaggerated height next to the dwarves (played by normally sized actors) fail to convince. Howard Shore's score is a rather dull chorale.
Freeman is a solid Bilbo, just the right amount of reluctance mixed with bravado. Andy Serkis again is the star of the show with his incredible conveyance of Gollum's psychosis. Armitage gets us invested in the dwarves' mission, but BBCA's 'Being Human's' handsome Aidan Turner may be the breakout star as the youthful Kili. Three actors double as dwarves and troll voices. Others include "Toast's" Ken Stott as Balin and "Bloody Sunday's" James Nesbitt as Bofur.
"The Hobbit" is for the faithful. For everyone else, it will probably prove the same as any long journey, periods of discovery and excitement countered with long stretches of boredom.
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