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Monday, December 24, 2012

At the movies: *The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey*

THE HOBBIT teaser poster, via www.thehobbit.com

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner Bros.)
Fantasy/adventure, 2012 (rating: PG-13)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
Written by: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro; adapted from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey follows title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which was long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever... Gollum. Here, alone with Gollum, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum's "precious" ...a simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know. -- (C) Warner Bros
I love Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. (I’m one of those heretics who prefers his films to Tolkien’s novels.) I was pleased by the announcement that he’d be responsible for the film version of the story that preceded them, The Hobbit. I was a little befuddled by the later news that The Hobbit would be made into two movies, and flabbergasted that it was being stretched into a third. Granted, it’s been decades since I last read The Hobbit, but my recollection was that it just wasn’t a big enough story to be a trilogy all by itself. Its big brother was based on three books (or three parts of one huge book, depending on your perspective), so three films made sense in that case, but...what?

I’m still not sure three movies are necessary, but having been through the first third of the saga now, I’m in for the long haul.

Just minutes into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey  I already appreciated that Jackson had eventually decided to direct these films himself, because it allows for a vision of Middle-earth that’s familiar and consistent with the earlier LotR movies (the ones based on a later story--yes, the chronology does get a little confusing!). It’s a vision that made me once again want to live in the Shire. (My taller family members would prefer Rivendell.)

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s book, which gives it a different tone than the LotR trilogy, and while An Unexpected Journey doesn’t feel like a children’s movie, it does, appropriately, have a different tone from its film brethren as well. There’s more humor, and it’s sillier. The goal of its traveling adventurers is a little smaller than defeating the forces of evil, although it will involve battle with a dragon. And the cast of characters is a little less diverse--fewer elves, many more dwarves, and just one hobbit. (And only one wizard, but it’s Gandalf the Grey, so why would you need any more?)

It takes some time for that hobbit to come into his own. Bilbo Baggins is a very reluctant adventurer, and spends most of the first half of the film reacting to the situations that Gandalf and the dwarves have thrown him into. Martin Freeman does a fine job of reacting, but it’s beautiful to see his Bilbo start emerging as a more active agent within the story as the film progresses, peaking with his riddle-exchanging encounter with Gollum and that troublesome ring.

Telling this story over three films--and augmenting it with “historical” material from the appendices at the end of the third LotR novel, The Return of the King--means that it won’t be rushed, and seeing how Bilbo grew in this installment made me appreciate that decision. The Hobbit doesn’t have the epic scope of The Lord of the Rings, and it’s not meant to, but there were moments in An Unexpected Journey that felt epic in the context of the full story of Middle-earth. This first installment runs nearly three hours on its own, but I didn’t feel that it dragged at all, and that makes me more optimistic about the two parts to come. I’m also hopeful that by the time we get to the last one, I’ll finally have all the dwarves sorted out.

Note: I saw this movie in conventional 2D, so I'll leave the techy discussion of the 48-frames-per-second 3D version to others.