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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

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Alas! We make a return to the beloved realm of Middle-Earth.  It’s been ten years since we were privy to the adventure of Frodo and the ring and we saw this fantastical world brought to life through the prism of Peter Jackson.  Finally, after long delay and uncertain starts, good ole Pete Jackson makes his triumphant reemergence to this world and now gives us an adaptation of the book that started it all.  Here we present our joint review of the first installment of the Middle-Earth prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I’m fortunate enough to have seen Unexpected Journey in every way possible. I will combine my experiences from the 2D, IMAX 3D, and High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D.  Once past the opening logos (felt a little weird seeing the MGM and Warner Brothers logos alongside the New Line one, but things got real familiar pretty quickly.  Starting the flick in the Bilbo’s hobbit hole instantly rekindles the warmth and familiarity felt from the opening of Fellowship of the Ring.  There are several, and unfortunately at some points quite obvious, call backs to the Rings trilogy.  These references are well placed bookends for the story but also feel a little forced as if to hide the fact that the Hobbit is actually a prequel to the Rings trilogy but instead to make sure that the audience (because we are apparently so dim) doesn’t forget that this picture is cut from the same cloth as the previous three.  But with mostly the same creative team backing up Peter Jackson with this, it is quite easy to see that this movie(s) lives in the same universe.  With the HFR, normal actions look a little unnaturally fast.  It gives of the sense of being filmed with one of those old school, circa early 20’s, cameras with the crank being turned too fast.  However, with the HFR, the 3D looks kinda Ridiculously Awesome!! but more on that later. Bilbo’s character is represented well and given ample opportunity to represent the perspective of the audience and provide the sympathy needed to carry the narrative forward.  The company of dwarves is pleasantly fleshed out, especially when directly compared to their representation in the books, and each are given interesting character traits making them more distinct and more engaging characters.  Unfortunately, at times the story starts to sag a little when its clear that the dwarves need to be moving along but seem to stop for a spell of exposition.  While it is nice to have an expanded sense of the world around the story, there are places when this expansion feels out-of-place and slows the flow of the story down.  As a whole though, the pace that this flick runs with, once it gets going, has a substantially more frantic feel than that of its ‘original trilogy’ counterpart.

The acting in An Unexpected Journey is the same high quality as is to now be expected from the likes of a Pete Jackson picture.  His casting is usually spot on by combining some well-known names with some lesser known ones while having the cast all be ACTORS and not just movie stars, that besmirch Middle-Earth’s good name and reputation with their ostentatious personas; NOPE, there is none of that nonsense here!!  Here, several of the original cast from the Rings series return to reprise their roles here.  Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett reprise their roles of the high Elves Elrond and Galadriel, respectively, and provide their normal and exquisite gravitas to the proceedings. Also returning is Sir Ian McKellen as Galdalf the Grey whom, this time around, seems to have a sightly less warm demeanor about him but his presence is still very much felt and is no less important as a catalyst to the events that unfold. Although, as previously mentioned, the dwarves are very much individualized, only a few stick out enough to earn an honorable mention for their acting chops. First is Richard Armitage portraying Thorin Oakenshield as a ‘rough and tumble’ (whatever the hell that is supposed to mean), ruggedly brooding leader of the company of hearty dwarves. Then there’s Balin, Thorin’s right hand man as it were, as played by Ken Stott.  While mostly a supporting role, Stott plays it with unyielding erudition and elegance. Although much of the exposition of the world of the dwarves was dropped on his shoulders, he gave these exposition moments a very engaging yet subtle intensity.  As to be expected, Andy Serkis really shines brightly as Smeagol/Gollum. Although his part in this tale is, unfortunately smaller, Serkis reprises his role from the Rings saga with outstanding panache and a welcomed yet unexpected levity.  But the person that really steals the show here is Martin Freeman playing the younger Bilbo Baggins. Yes, Ian Holm does return to revisit the character as the older Bilbo, but its Freeman’s portrayal that really makes the film work on so many more levels than it all ready does. His comedic subtlety and timing are absolutely brilliant here.  Freeman really knows how to portray the stuffiness of a previously well content hobbit now out of place on this grand adventure. This is an example of a performance, deservedly so, honestly carrying a movie.

Since this is a Peter Jackson production, there are at least two things that are absolutely guaranteed. One the movie is going to be EPICLY LONG!!  Second, the movie is going to be EPICLY PRETTY, and my friends, Unexpected Journey is no exception. The detail given to the sets is, as it was for the Rings saga, at an almost inhumanly high level of complexity and thus provides an utter realism to the look of the world.  And the vistas captured, throughout New Zealand, are once again almost a centerpiece for the flick. WETA digital once again provides their visual magic for the film and, despite some things I’ve heard from nay-sayers, they really raised the bar for what they can do. In both the 2D and 3D versions, the CG environments work very well while some of the characters (I’m pointing at YOU Goblin King and all of your disgusting underlings) approach the uncanny valley in their realism.  The 3D in the film is quite exceptional which is aided by the fact that the flick was actually filmed in 3D.  Also, with the movie being filmed in a higher frame rate than normal, the difference is clearly seen in more than just the 3D. The biggest drawback for the HFR however is since everything looks much more realistic, an element of the overtly fantastic quality, present in the Rings saga, is somehow missing. With this, it is clear that what is being seen does not exist, not because it looks fake, but rather because it looks almost ‘too real to be believed’; this unfortunately brings down the suspension of disbelief for the film. However, none of this distracts from the fact that, being a Jackson film, it’s just pretty. Revisiting Khazad-Dum, a bit closer to its glory days, was a real treat; but, that Azog turned out to be a real prick!! Oh, and then there’s that Radagast the Brown character that is ALMOST as out of place as a Jar Jar Binks, but thankfully we don’t have a full repeat of that Phantom Menace situation.  So, with just one intensely awkward moment (that shot of all the dwarves staring at Thorin after the tale of Khazad-Dum) a plot that’s just shy of being stretched like butter over too much bread, and very pretty picture indeed, this first installment of The Hobbit comes in pretty strong.

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, “The Force is strong with this one.”

-DStarB

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