Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth with a worthy prequel to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”.
“The Hobbit” is much lighter in tone, and stuffed with action sequences, but remains a shining example of how modern fantasy films should be crafted.
It has an incredible pedigree to live up to, but I think “The Hobbit” adds to the franchise proudly.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is securely living a comfortable life in his hobbit hole, Bag End, in the Shire. One day, the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) approaches him and strikes up a small, almost confrontational conversation. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, Gandalf settles on him at that moment as a candidate for the 14th member of an expedition he’s helping to form. Later, unannounced, a steady stream of Dwarves begin showing up at Bilbo’s door. Their company, 13 Dwarves in all, assemble in his home to discuss their plans and induct Bilbo as their burglar and 14th member. A flustered, overwhelmed Bilbo initially declines, but after they leave in the morning he realizes what he’d be missing out on and runs off after them.
The party, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is heading East to reclaim their fallen mountain city from a Dragon. Years ago, the Dragon was attracted to the hoard of gold the Dwarves had amassed, and it took their city from them. The Dwarves scatter throughout the land, and many of them are slaughtered in a costly conflict with Orcs, but during the battle Oakenshield proves himself a warrior and worthy leader. Now he has assembled a small band to travel back to the mountain to slay the Dragon and reclaim their home. Even before they arrive they will face many challenges. Standing in their way are any number of foul beasts of the wild… and a company of Orcs out for revenge on Oakenshield.
“The Hobbit” features much more comedy than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy did. The first book was always a lighter read than the subsequent trilogy, and that tone comes across in the film as well. Between the Dwarves and the introduction of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), there’s a much higher comedic quotient here… but fans of the original should still be pleased, and have no trouble connecting this to the original franchise. Jackson helps by including a number of cast members from the first trilogy, giving this a strong connective thread. He opens with a flash forward to Bilbo and Frodo (Ian Holm and Elijah Wood), reminding us of where we’ll eventually be, and along the way, works in small parts for Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. That, combined with Ian McKellen having a prominent role, will be more than enough commonality to make this feel a part of the series as a whole.
The Dwarves are supremely fun (if difficult to keep track of, but hey, there’s 13 of them), and Radagast the Brown makes for a funny, quirky introduction. There are lots of themes of common folk triumphing over evil expressed, as Bilbo is portrayed as the everyman, called upon to do the extraordinary. There’s also tons of action sequences (though a couple threaten to encroach on “overblown” territory) and of course, with Peter Jackson at the helm, you never forget you’re in Middle Earth.
And of course, there’s Gollum.
Andy Serkis’ Gollum, who made an enormous splash in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as one of the first ever CGIed characters in a major film, returns here in triumphant fashion for the Riddle Game scene. I wont go into details beyond that for those who havent read the book, but I will say that the riddle scene – arguably the most famous scene in the novels – is brought to life perfectly onscreen by Serkis, Freeman and Jackson. Fans could not want for more. Serkis’ Gollum is at his psychotic best, and Freeman does a wonderful job of portraying the wide range of emotions that Bilbo goes through in that encounter. Fear, courage, pity, resourcefulness… That scene has always been one of my personal favorites in all of Tolkien’s books, and “The Hobbit” has brought it to life wonderfully.
Though a bit lighter than its predecessors, and lacking some of the gravitas, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is still an incredible fantasy action adventure, and certainly a worthy chapter in the Middle Earth franchise.
A quick note about the 48 frames per second format. I sought out and saw this film in the new 48 frames per second format, and let me tell you, it is discernably and dramatically different. It’s definitely not something slight that you’ll strain to figure out what the difference is. It lends a much more realistic look to the proceedings, especially when things are in motion. Things seem much more fluid, and everything looks crisper. At times, between the 3D and the 48FPS, I felt as if I were watching a play as opposed to a movie. It’s going to draw a lot of criticism, I’m sure… mainly because it is so dramatically noticeable. I was a big fan, though. It struck me as much clearer and a much more realistic than 24 FPS. Almost hyper-real. I’d be happy to see more films following this one’s lead, but… given the backlash the format is experiencing out of the gate, it’s not certain they will.