Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) enjoys his life amongst the other Hobbits in the Shire. That quiet, comfortable existence is upended by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) who wants Bilbo to go on an adventure. Bilbo refuses and thinks that’s the end of it; but he’s very wrong. Thirteen dwarves show up at his door offering their service and asking for food. Their leader is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) who would be the king of the dwarves had their homeland and all its gold not been stolen by a fire-breathing dragon called Smaug 60 years earlier. Now the signs all point to a prophecy about the dwarves return to their kingdom coming true and the dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo set off on an adventure that will take them through many dangerous encounters with orcs, trolls, goblins, stone giants and a strange little creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) who is obsessed with a golden ring he calls Precious.
Director Peter Jackson returns to familiar territory with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” His “Lord of the Rings” trilogy based on the books of J.R.R. Tolkien made billions of dollars and charmed legions of fans, both of the books as well as people who had never cracked the spine of any of the author’s works. With “The Hobbit,” Jackson is looking to rekindle some of the old Middle Earth magic and return to the top of the box office rankings. While the film is largely a success, the complaints many viewers had with the original trilogy seem to be amplified in this new film.
First, the good news: “The Hobbit” is a spectacular looking film. From the sets to the costumes, the special effects to the make-up, “The Hobbit” has much the same visual flair and attention to detail as “LOTR.” I often found myself studying the beards, noses and hairlines of the characters, looking for the obvious signs of prosthetics and wigs but could, of course, find none. The sets are luxuriously detailed with the little bits of bric-a-brac that require multiple viewings to even be noticed. The interiors of massive caves and towering castles, most of which are computer generated, look as real and solid as anything to be found in reality and probably look better as well. In other words, Peter Jackson and his massive crew of set designers, make-up artists, costumers, animal wranglers, armorers, and computer artists have once again given the viewer a world that is wholly realized and rendered. They will likely be nominated for several Oscars in the more behind-the-scenes categories.
As in the previous trilogy, the landscapes of New Zealand are as much a character as any of the actors. From green plains to lush forests to snowcapped mountains, the vistas of Jackson’s homeland are once again displayed for the world to be jealous of its beauty. Unfortunately, we get many long, lingering shots of dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard walking through those picture postcard views, often taken from a helicopter. You see the characters marching or running along shot from the air so often you may feel like you deserve airline miles on your credit card for the time spent aloft.
Jackson is taking a single book that was 310 pages in its first edition printing and creating three films that will each be nearly three hours (that doesn’t include the “bonus footage” in the director’s cuts for the DVD’s and inevitable theatrical re-releases). I enjoy spending time in Middle Earth; but I also like going to Florida on vacation. That doesn’t mean I want to live in either location. From lingering shots of people walking to epic battles that seem repetitive, “The Hobbit” feels like a film that’s been padded to justify making three films. Jackson’s original plan was to split the story over two movies; but at some time during filming and/or editing, he decided to expand to a third film. I have no problem with as many “Hobbit” films as it takes to tell the story; however, if this first movie is any indication, we’ll have enough overhead walking/running shots from the three movies combined to make a three hour highlight reel of just those images. I understand the need for some of those shots. Jackson is trying to convey the long journey the characters are on and the arduous physical effort required. I argue the audience would get the point with half as many of these shots or if they were half as long.
“The Hobbit” also seems to be substituting action for story which, again, feels like padding. From flashbacks of ancient battles to conflicts in the current story, many of these melees go on far too long. The length of these sword and sorcery fights tends to reduce their credibility. While there are no orcs, goblins or trolls to battle, extending these scenes where our heroes are vastly outnumbered yet still manage to prevail despite the odds stretches their believability to the breaking point.
Despite my complaints, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a pleasant return to the Shire with some familiar faces along for the trip. Sir Ian McKellen is terrific as Gandalf. Despite the decade that has passed since the original trilogy, McKellen still appears to be able to handle the demands of the character. Much of his performance comes from his deep baritone voice and expressive, craggy face. Using both his acting skills and the added magic of special effects, McKellen’s Gandalf is just as powerful as before. Sir Ian Holm returns as the older version of Bilbo at the beginning of the film along with Elijah Wood as Frodo. Hugo Weaving and Kate Blanchett also are back as Elrond and Galadriel, along with Sir Christopher Lee as Sarumon. Perhaps the most anticipated returning actor is one who isn’t seen at all: Andy Serkis as Gollum. Serkis provides the voice as well as the motion capture performance for Gollum who is then digitally inserted in the scenes. I believe much of Serkis’ facial expressions have made the digital transition to the character as Gollum appears much more expressive as well as more corporeal and solid than in his previous incarnations. Serkis’ performance makes the character sympathetic as well as detestable with his sudden shift in voice and expression as the evil of the ring overtakes his usually friendly personality.
Martin Freeman turns in a fidgety, nervous and timid performance as Bilbo. It is also rather brilliant. Bilbo protests that he just wants to be left alone but realizes that his quiet life is boring. Freeman shows how Bilbo is able to learn from his adventures and discovers the hero within. The transformation is subtle and realistic. I’m looking forward to what Freeman does with Bilbo over the next two films.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. The swordplay is lengthy and recurring in the film. While most of it isn’t graphically gory, there are some instances where limbs and heads are lopped off and torsos are run through. Many of the characters are rather scary looking, like the orcs and the goblins. Foul language is not an issue.
Peter Jackson is opening up the portal to Middle Earth and inviting us in for another visit to witness the events that set up the “Lord of the Rings.” While the Shire is just as quaint and green as before, the storytelling is a bit more haphazard and the images on the screen often feel like unnecessary filler. Still, it is good to revisit this magical world and I do look forward to seeing how the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf deal with the fire-breathing dragon Smaug.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” gets four guitars out of five.
I saw the nine-minute preview of “Star Trek into Darkness” prior to the IMAX 3D showing of “The Hobbit.” As a Trek fan from its original TV airings in the 1960’s, this film has been at the top of my list since the first bits of information began to leak out. The preview doesn’t tip who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing in the film. He might be a villain from the original canon or he could be someone completely new. The action scene with Kirk and McCoy that occupies most of the preview is often comedic and should satisfy fans that worried the movie would be too dark. I’m curious as to Spock’s fate as the preview ends with him in the heart of a volcano that’s about to erupt with an explosive device intended to stop it. All in all, this extended look at the next chapter in the rebooted Trek franchise has me chomping at the bit to see the rest which is due out May 17, 2013.
The approaching Christmas holiday brings with it a bounty of new movies. Vote for the next film I see and review.
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D—A young woman seeking escape enters a circus tent and falls instantly in love with an aerialist that she sees performing. But when their eyes meet, he slips and falls, dragging Mia with him into another world.
The Guilt Trip—An inventor and his mom hit the road together so he can sell his latest invention, starring Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand.
Jack Reacher—One morning in an ordinary town, five people are shot dead in a seemingly random attack. All evidence points to a single suspect: an ex-military sniper who is quickly brought into custody. The man's interrogation yields one statement: Get Jack Reacher.
Monsters, Inc. 3D—Mike, Sully and Boo are back in this classic animated adventure, now in 3D.
This is 40—Debbie and Pete are entering middle age with two growing children, aging parents, financial troubles and the stress of being married. They'll have to learn to forgive, forget and enjoy the rest of their lives -- before they kill each other.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film currently playing in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.