"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" Hardly Unexpected Sequel
Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
by Jeff Ritter
Published: December 16, 2012
For fans of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's fantasy epic, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was undoubtedly expected when "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" hit theaters in 2001. It doesn't seem that long ago that audiences first thrilled to to adventures of Hobbit Frodo Baggins, Aragorn the human warrior, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf and Gandalf the Grey. It was an immense undertaking by producer and director Peter Jackson. Tolkien's saga of Middle Earth wasn't exactly easy reading. I know a lot of fans of the fantasy genre who have never finished the books. I admit, I've never tried to start. I always enjoyed the Ralph Bakshi animated versions from the 1970s, and that was enough for me. Many Tolkien devotees didn't share my opinion of those films, but Jackson's ambitious trilogy seemed to satisfy most, including the stodgy old curmudgeons who vote for the Oscars. The final installment, "The Return of the King," became the first film in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for more than ten awards and sweep every category, including Best Picture.
Of course, Hollywood loves being able to squeeze every cent they can out of a franchise. That usually bothers me, but "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is one of the few prequels I endorse. The story seems more compact and generally more single-focused than the Lord of the Rings series did. There aren't nearly as many subplots to bog things down. Once the film gets going it really is a wonderful romp through familiar yet exciting territory. The story begins in the home of Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Halfling Shire. His otherwise typical day was interrupted by the arrival of Gandalf the Grey, wizard and subtle manipulator in the name of good. He was accompanied by a group of thirteen dwarves, led by their Prince Thorin Oakenshield and long displaced from their homeland. Gandalf explains that he needs Bilbo to join them (despite Thorin's reservations) because 13 is an unfortunate number for such an important quest as they are undertaking. Despite his better judgement, Bilbo joins the group and away they go. This sequence, while straight out of the novel (I have made it through the first few chapters of The Hobbit), and important for getting some necessary exposition out of the way, seemed to drag on for way too long. But once this band of heroes encounter three trolls, the high-adventure hijinx ensue. Swords are swung, magic is cast, foes are fallen. That's what I wanted to see.
The shortest of Tolkien's novels, Hollywood has deemed it necessary to stretch Bilbo's tale into three separate films. This installment's story revolves mostly around Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf. Bilbo Baggins is played by Martin Freeman, who has starred in 2005's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the British version of The Office opposite Ricky Gervais, and the current BBC television series Sherlock, where he plays Doctor Watson. He bears a reasonable resemblance to Ian Holm, who played the older Bilbo in the original trilogy as well as a brief cameo appearance here, and he projects a wonderful air of vulnerability even as he builds his confidence and trust with his dwarven companions. There's just something about his shy grin that makes you want to root for the poor guy. His biggest critic, Prince Thorin, is played by one of my favorite actors, Richard Armitage. American fans might not know him outside of his role as Nazi spy Heinz Kruger in "Captain America: The First Avenger." British fans and Americans who enjoy BBC TV series however they can find it would know him as Lucas North on MI-5 and perhaps best of all as Sir Guy of Gisbourne from Robin Hood. By the time Robin Hood ended Guy was my favorite character, surpassing even England's most famous outlaw himself. I hope The Hobbit trilogy propels Richard to greater heights on this side of the pond. He is perfect as the grim and short-tempered heir to a lost throne. Considering Richard stands 6' 2" and Sir Ian McKellen a mere 5' 11" it's funny to see McKellen tower over him when they're on screen together. McKellen, of course, is reprising his role as Gandlaf the Grey. If there's anyone out there who doesn't already know what a master actor McKellen is, push the rock of of you and get to a theater. The once (and possibly future) Magneto is a good ten years older now and has been fighting a battle against cancer for the last several years, but thanks to the magic of movies he looks just ever so slightly younger than he did in the first trilogy. Other notable returning characters include the beautiful yet mysterious mystic Galadriel (Cate Blanchette), Elf leader Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the not-quite-yet-evil-but-obviously-headed-that-way Saruman (Christopher Lee), and of course the deformed outcast Gollum (Andy Serkis). The main villains in this affair are the Goblins, led by their bloated king (Barry Humphries) and the Orcs, led by the ferocious Bolg (Conan Stevens, who legitimately stands 7' 1"!).
Some critics complain about the film's length. Checking in at 169 minutes -- nearly three hours -- it probably is a bit too long. When it's all said and done, you could probably read the novel in less time than it will take to watch this trilogy. However for the price of movie tickets these days, I'd much rather see a substantial film than some half-baked plot that doesn't quite fill 90 minutes. I would have preferred Peter Jackson to cut down the slow opening scenes and get into the action a little sooner. A bigger issue seems to be the use of a higher 3D film speed. The 3D frames zip by at 48 frames per second, making the effect much crisper and reducing blur. Some audience members said it left them feeling woozy, but I didn't suffer any physical consequences due to the technology. Instead I suffered because I loathe 3D technology, period. It does not add a thing to the film. If anything, I felt it distracted Peter Jackson from the task at hand, namely catering to the story. There were several sequences where the characters play directly to the camera, looking right into the lens. The action didn't fall off the screen and land in my lap any more than any other live action 3D movie has (which is to say never). It gave the appearance of being on a ride at Universal Studios Orlando or playing a video game. Every time one of these moments occurred it pulled me out of the narrative because somewhere in the back of my mind I was shouting, "Dammit, Peter Jackson, I know technology is wonderful and amazing and I don't care! Worry about being faithful to the source material, I can figure out the depth of field just fine on my own!" The only time I might condone the use of 3D is in an animated feature. It's the only time it ever really seems to work. I would like to hope that the film will be available to view in blessed 2D somewhere, but if it's not, be prepared to wear glasses you may otherwise not need for nearly three hours.
Despite my disdain for Hollywood's over-reliance on technology and sticking it to you, the movie goer, at the box office for the privilege, I greatly enjoyed "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." I will probably fast-forward a couple of chapters once it's released for DVD and Bluray, but I would be more than happy to watch Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf and company wage a seemingly impossible war against the forces of darkness again and again. I just hope Jackson doesn't pioneer 4.5D by 2014. Leave it alone, and tell us the best story you can on the merits of the story alone. Everything else will take care of itself.