Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure Review

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a love letter to JJR Tolkien, Middle-Earth and New Zealand from Peter Jackson. The look, the feel, and the use of the source material could not have been handled more skill while New Zealand as Middle-Earth could not look more stunning. The story itself is actually pretty straightforward. A company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) have called on the assistance of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) on the advice of Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) to assist them in getting their home and treasures back from Smaug the Dragon. Like any adventure, the path from here to there is never easy or straightforward. Meanwhile, the "B-story" Gandalf has greater concerns then reclaiming lost land as it seems an ancient evil may be returning to threaten all of Middle-Earth.

Jackson and company make changes from the source material but almost always for the better and that approach has not changed with An Unexpected Journey which follows The Hobbit book much more closely than the LOTR trilogy while adding more to it than the initial novel had. The result is an entertaining film that starts slow (takes time to introduce 14 characters) but gets better as you watch.

I watched this in the same format as The Lord of the Rings trilogy as in regular 24FPS as a result I cannot speak to the 48FPS concerns. The film looked and sounded great and hit along the trilogy just fine. If I go back for a second viewing I will give another format a try but I was perfectly satisfied with the regular way of viewing a film.

As someone who had to force himself to read the Lord of the Rings books, it never ceased to amaze me how Jackson took such dry (but imaginative material) and make it come alive. The Hobbit, being essentially a children's story, moves at a much faster clip (again once get past the dinner party introduction of all the characters) so the result if often Tolkien would skip over the amazing (mountain giants fighting) in just a sentence or two or presenting mysteries (where does Gandalf keep going?) that the novel itself never answered. With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson gets into the those glossed over nook and carnies presenting a much deeper story then the novel itself had. How with depth comes length and at 3 hours you will be starting to clock watch if only wondering when to hit the bathroom. I just can't think of what could have been easily cut short of the action scenes and who wants those to go? Almost all the "dull" talking scenes are necessary and to cut them would have harmed the film more than helped.

While at first it may seem intimidating to try to keep up with all the dwarves with rhyming names but distinct looks but it really doesn't turn out to be a problem. The key dwarf is Thorin with the rest as comic relief and supporting players for the events that follow. Armitage plays Thorin as a defeated king determined to return his people to their glory and doesn't care how he does it. The result is you never doubt he is the leader but you do wonder if he deserves to be. Ian McKellen brings his usual skill to the role making Gandalf as alive as he did in the trilogy. You never doubt his wisdom, skill or ability to swing a sword. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo perfectly. You feel his character arc as timid but curious Hobbit who through his experiences starts to realize he has more courage than anyone around him. The stand out, to no surprise, is Andy Serkis whose reprisal of Gollum for the key "Riddles in the Dark" sequence that introduces the One Ring is simply outstanding from beginning to end and almost worth the price of admission just for that sequence alone. Cate Blanchett (mesmerizing gorgeous as Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond) and the rest of the cast all are equal to the task and perfectly cast.

Considering Weta Digital is behind it all, it should come to no surprise that the visual and sound effects are top notch and while improved on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, remain similar enough in design that you believe you are still on Middle-Earth. The costuming remains stunning and the dwarf designs are just unique enough that you can tell them apart visually. The use of New Zealand is simply gorgeous as Middle-Earth and the reprisals of certain areas (like Weathertop from Fellowship) helped unify the land with what was seen in LOTR trilogy.

The action scenes were frequently over the top resulting in feeling like there was no stakes in the action. While fun to watch, none had the same dangerous tension that any of the LOTR trilogy action sequences had. At no point did you feel they were in any real dangerous, just more curious to see how group would get out of their current predicament. Despite their often roller coast type quality, Peter Jackson remains that calm guiding force at the wheel making it easy to keep up with what is occurring on screen and where everyone is within the geography of the area they are in. He doesn't rely on the shaking camera, fast editing nonsense that weaker directors rely on. He knows a steady camera, good editing, and well-designed action sequences will carry the day.

Really the only "weakness" of the film is inherited from the source material in that the story flow is a bit uneven. It starts slow (again lots of characters and exposition to get through) and builds from there. While Jackson does the best he can, I probably wouldn't have minded if they just skipped the dinner party sequence even while recognizing it is critical to seeing where Bilbo started on his character arc. There is a bit of moments like that. For example you have Radagast the Brown, the White Council meeting and few other moments that within the body of An Unexpected Adventure seem to serve little purpose but are necessary for not only placing the adventure within the context of the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy but explain the what and why of Gandalf's side adventures and concerns. Without them, his behavior would seem just as odd as they did when reading the novel.

The rhythm of An Unexpected Journey story matches in many ways to Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. In both cases the story flow is the initial slow beginning as the story and characters are introduced followed by characters running to and from something, a brief sequence on Weathertop with a stopover in Rivendell, an adventure over and in a mountain followed by more running and fighting against bad guys that ends with a quiet moment of reflection. As a result if you enjoyed Fellowship, there is little reason to think you will not enjoy Journey just as much.

Peter Jackson's love of Middle-Earth and New Zealand continues and it shows in every frame of this enjoyable film. The only real complaint to be had is he might have stuck a little too close to the source material at times but the choice was always done to service the story and the characters. Everything is executed with a skill and feels for the epic that few directors are capable of pulling off. The acting remains outstanding, the story is entertaining and the special effects are jaw dropping. While the stakes may not seem as high as they were in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it doesn't make the story any less enjoyable and worth watching for any fan of the movies.

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