Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy begins its Middle Earth journey
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Opens December 14
The sense of déjà vu hovering over director and co-screenwriter Peter Jackson's return to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth is undeniable. After the weight, majesty, and power of his massive and highly successful take on the author's The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago, the events talked about in his opening salvo at tackling prequel The Hobbit can't help but feel trite and unimportant. The fate of the world isn't at stake this time around - the lives of men, dwarves, elves and, of course, hobbits, aren't exactly in the balance as pint-sized Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) heads out his door, leaving the Shire for his initial adventure.
At the same time, this film, saddled with the subtitle An Unexpected Journey and the first of a new trilogy, is hardly a waste of time. Jackson knows this world and its people with robust and energetic intimacy, and as familiar as much of this tale can feel the director is hardly spinning his wheels. His passion is evident in every frame and every shot, and one can tell instantly he and his creative team have thought through every second of the story attempting to achieve a level of exactitude that's undeniable.
But to what end? Tolkien's original tale was purposefully thin, the author crafting something more akin to a children's tale with The Hobbit than he was anything else. The story didn't require a lot of heavy lifting and, in most editions (sans the appendices) ran just over 300 or so pages, hardly the stuff that would fuel a trio of three-hour, $200-million-plus Hollywood epics. There is filler here and at times it can feel like Jackson is taking forever to get to the heart of the matter, and as handsome and well-acted as this production is, there's no denying that this first act of the adventure is much too long.
THE RING SAGA BEGINS
For those who don't already know, the story revolves around Bilbo being convinced by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to join a group of 13 dwarves, led by the haunted yet commanding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and embark on a quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the group's home from the dragon Smaug. Why he has been given this task he is not sure, and for that matter neither is the wizard who has given it to him. The relatively young Hobbit (he's a spritely 51) manages to learn much about himself as well as the nature of the larger world as he and the group face down all manner of unspeakable and dangerous calamities.
The connection to The Lord of the Rings is obvious, of course, as it is here that Bilbo will come by the One Ring, the devilish device that will signal the return of an ancient evil and send his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) out on his own adventure 60 years later. But Jackson, trying to give An Unexpected Journey additional weight, makes sure to hint at the coming calamitous turn of events at every opportunity, playing up the fact that Thorin and his group have inadvertently started something with their journey that will bring all of Middle Earth into a fight for its very survival not too far in the future.
Some of this is nice - a scene in Rivendell between Gandalf, Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) achieves an ethereal elegance I found enchanting. Other times, though, these sequences, most notably ones involving another wizard - the unhinged and mentally unbalanced Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) - are so heavy-handed and over-the-top they drove me nuts, and while some of what he talks about is important (at least as far as the next film is concerned) there's no denying his presence is borderline superfluous.
Granted, the one exceedingly important and emotionally chilling connection between the two Middle Earth stories is handled with the precision, care, and majesty required, the initial meeting between Bilbo and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) as startlingly effective as anything I could have imagined. The two, engaged in a battle of riddles, go back and forth and round and round, each trying to mentally outdo the other and take charge of a situation neither knows the full consequences of. It is a thrilling sequence, beautifully acted by both Freeman and Serkis and marvelously staged by Jackson, the heart of the story laid bare and our hero's transformation from timid, unsure wanderer to confident, larger-than-life adventurer honest and pure.
But did I need to see a thunderstorm-filled battle between the mystical Rock Giants as Thorin and his band attempted to make his way across the mountains? Were so many scenes of chitchat between talkative goblins, trolls, and orcs even slightly necessary? Was the addition of Azog (Manu Bennett), a brutish, one-armed orc villain with an obsession for Thorin's head on a pike, one that helped propel the story on in any discernible way? Not really, and as nice as many of these scenes are on their own, inside the movie itself they feel self-indulgent, slowing the proceedings down more than they do anything else. Quite simply, I couldn't help but feel that by the time the end came we should have been farther along this journey than we were, and the thought that there were still six hours of motion picture to go wasn't exactly comforting.
HFR + 3D = HEADACHE
There is an additional facet to all of this I have not yet mentioned, and it's one that has little to do with the storytelling yet is important all the same. I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Jackson's preferred template, High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D, in which the image is shown at 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the usual 24 fps, and I cannot help but say that visually this was as jarring and uncomfortable an experience as any I've had in a movie theater.
It goes without saying that clarity is increased many times over, while the fluidity of the 3D is oftentimes extraordinary. On top of that, in close-up the digital effects have never looked so tactile, all of the sequences with Gollum so startlingly realistic one could be forgiven if they thought the character was on the set the day of shooting (not Serkis, mind you, but the actual character) and not created later on a computer screen. There is mind-blowing detail to be found in HFR 3D, of that I cannot deny.
At the same time, there is a downside to this clarity that came close to driving me right round the proverbial bend. The fakery of it all, the digitally crafted majesty of so much of the Middle Earth world, all of it has never been so clearly visible. The lines between the practical and the digital are crystal-clear: many of the scenes of Thorin and the dwarves running through caverns escaping from orcs look more like herky-jerky cut-scenes from some high-profile video game than they do anything else. It's distracting and distancing, taking me out of the movie far more often than it immersed me in it, and as such my reservations regarding HFR 3D are considerable, to say the least.
Not that most people will be seeing the film this way - only a handful of theaters across the country are capable of showing it in that format. But as this was the way Jackson intended The Hobbit to be seen and the way the studio chose to have the press preview it, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about it, and personally I'm incredibly curious to discover how audiences who do choose to see it in this format respond to the director's technological experiment.
As for the movie itself, part of me feels like I'm being too harsh in regard to some of this opening chapter's shortcomings. This return trip to Middle Earth is not without its merits, Freeman in particular making for a rousing everyman sort of hero I couldn't help but want to cheer. While the magic isn't as pure and as strong as it was for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's hardly waning. An Unexpected Journey is overall an enjoyable experience and I for one am still interested to see what Jackson has in store for us next.
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