Sunday, December 16, 2012

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' Review - It's Always Fun to Visit Old Friends on New Adventures

It's been over a decade since moviegoers last set foot in Middle Earth, the world J.R.R. Tolkien created back in his first novel, 'The Hobbit' in 1937. After the massive success of Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, it was only a matter of time before we saw 'The Hobbit' on the big screen. After years of development, and originally being a producer only role on the film, Peter Jackson stepped back behind the camera to bring us back to Middle Earth in the original first chapter of this epic saga. In a move that has become very popular in Hollywood, 'The Hobbit' isn't being told in just one film, but being split into multiple films to tell the story, turning it into a new trilogy. Bringing back some of the fan favorite actors from the original trilogy back, while bringing a whole new array of actors in as the new characters, Jackson has brought us back to Middle Earth in great fashion, but can it live up to the expectations fans have put into their heads for many years, while living up to the previous series? That's what many want to know, but the answer isn't a simple yes or no.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a mild mannered hobbit who lives a carefree life in his hole in the ground in the Shire. But when Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) arrives one day asking him to go on an adventure, his life will become never be the same. When a company of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), sets their sites on going to the Lonely Mountains, the remnants of their race's destroyed kingdom, Bilbo is enlisted to help them on their journey. Bilbo decides that a life of adventure is exactly what he wants, and agrees to join them on their mission, which will eventually lead them face to face with Smaug, the dragon who destroyed the dwarves' kingdom. This journey will set events into motion that will forever change the characters, and Middle Earth, forever.

Waiting to finally see 'The Hobbit' on the big screen really set the expectations for this film at an all time high, especially coming after the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. Fans may want to temper their expectations going into 'An Unexpected Journey', because this isn't a simple adaptation of the book. Jackson and his team have dived into the appendices of 'Return of the King' to pull more material that happens during the time of 'The Hobbit' to bolster the story, hoping to expand the story to fit it over three films. Unfortunately, at least thus far, adding material to the story doesn't necessarily help it, and ends up making the film feeling bloated, overlong, and simply unfocused on the core story of 'The Hobbit', making it take a backseat to some of the new subplots that the behind the scenes have cooked up. There seems to be a desire to link this story to 'The Lord of the Rings' films, more so than in the original story. Exploring things like The White Council, as well as the addition of the Pale Orc, Thorin's arch nemesis, may be interesting subplots, but they really drag down the film. The whole middle of the film feels a bit overlong as they begin exploring these plots in such great detail, and really took focus away from Bilbo and his journey, as well as changing the entire tone of the story from a whimsical kids story to a more serious take on it. Not completely serious, mind you, but more serious than the initial tale. 

Thankfully, even with those changes, 'An Unexpected Journey' manages to be a very good film in its own right. With Martin Freeman leading the film as Bilbo Baggins, the film sits on his shoulders, as well as those of Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage, who all help carry the film. Freeman has been a character actor for many years that many may recognize, but has recently gotten critical acclaim in the role of Doctor John Watson in the BBC series 'Sherlock'. There are few actors who completely disappear into character and become that character, and thankfully, Freeman is able to do just that as Bilbo. He's excellent as the titular hobbit, and really captures the magic of the character from the novel, bringing him to life perfectly. It's really just excellent casting, and one of the best since Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Bilbo is just such a wonderful character, and Freeman plays him with the wide eyes and wonder that you'd expect the character to have, leaving his safe life behind for a new adventure. This role is going to fully land Freeman on the map for those who don't know him yet, which is excellent, because more people should really appreciate his acting. Sir Ian McKellen returns for the fourth time to play the great wizard, Gandalf, a role he made famous in 'The Fellowship of the Ring' almost a decade ago. It's great to see him returning to the role once again, and it really seems like one that was tailor made for him. He's just so great as the character, and it's nice to see him having a bit more fun in the role this time around, with the slightly lighter tone. But he still brings gravitas and importance to his character, especially in the scenes featuring the White Council, where you can see the more withered and older side of this great man begin to show through. There's no one else who could do the role the way McKellen has, so it's really nice to see that didn't change all these years later. His chemistry with Freeman is nothing short of excellent, and they play off each other wonderfully, and you really believe there's a great friendship, and appreciation, for each other between them. Gandalf never would have chosen someone he didn't believe in for this quest, and you can see just why he would ask Bilbo to that person.

Finally, we can talk about Richard Armitage as Thorin, who really stood out in his role as the tortured and haunted dwarf leader. He, like Freeman and McKellen, really brought Thorin to life in the exact way the character was in the novel. It's rather excellent casting, and you can't help but feel for him after the losses he's faced in his life, and having the rest of the future of his face on his shoulders, as it were. If there's one thing Jackson knows, it's how to cast the roles in his films, and it's great to see that he managed to get three excellent actors to really sell these roles. One who will also be hugely convincing in their role is Andy Serkis as Gollum, who returns once again, in what is the films best scene. It's amazing seeing how far the effects of the character have come, and how easily Serkis slipped back into the role as the rather disturbed character. He just oozes the creepy, strange, yet rather entertaining characteristics of the character so well, and you can't help but feel uncomfortable and worried for Bilbo as he deals with the rather strange character. The whole scene between Bilbo and Gollum is really the best scene in the film, and as fans of the series know, one that will set many events in the future into motion. It's executed absolutely perfectly, and it's scenes like this that really elevate the film. As for the many supporting actors as the rest of the dwarves, while they're all quite good, we aren't given a whole lot of time to get to know the different characters. They all stand out by their appearances, but unfortunately, they all begin to bleed together in their characteristics. It really makes one hope that we'll eventually get to know them more over the next two films in the series, so that they don't feel so one dimensional later, but for now, they're entertaining characters, and very well acted, but nothing really sets them all apart to make them standout.

If there was one thing that was most disappointing about the film, it's the move from extras to CGI when it came to some of the creatures. In 'Lord of the Rings', the pure scope and size of the films were so epic, and it helped in the many scenes featuring orcs that they were all extras in makeup and costumes, so it's a bit jarring to now have the orcs as completely CG characters now. It never looks bad, in fact, the effects are quite good, but it's definitely a noticeable difference, and it definitely makes you wonder why they decided to take that route instead of using extras this time around. The creature effects in the film are excellent across the board though, and it's really just amazing how far they've come over the last decade. Jackson's Middle Earth is really something to behold, and it's great to see the sweeping New Zealand landscapes once again on the big screen. The cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, really making the film feel huge and epic, and it's good to see that Jackson and Andrew Lesnie haven't lost that touch from the original series. It just goes to prove that Lesnie is still one of the greatest cinematographers in the business right now, and that none of his films should be missed for that reason alone. He did an amazing job with the 3D as well, which is a major plus. It really made parts of the film feel incredibly immersive, especially many of the scenes inside Bilbo's home and scenes inside the Goblin tunnels, that stuck out the most. It really added quite a bit of depth to the proceedings, without feeling incredibly gimmicky, and it actually benefited the film. It doesn't make or break the film, but it didn't hurt it, which is a major plus.

The action in this film is few and far between, but the wait makes each set piece worth it. While not nearly as exciting as some of the final war scenes in 'Return of the King', which isn't surprising, many of them in this film are a bit more fun. One in particular is the scene set inside the Goblin mines, which is a bit reminiscent of the Moria scene in 'Fellowship of the Ring' that is really a lot of fun to watch, and brings some of the whimsy feeling of the original novel to the screen. It's very fun to watch, and in 3D, even more so. There are some excellent action sequences in flashbacks regarding Thorin's past as well, and those felt very huge and epic, really reminding me of 'Return of the King' and 'The Two Towers', specifically the scenes at Minas Tirith. Once again, Lesnie brings some amazing visuals to all these scenes, really making them pop. It's really good to have him return to make these films feel like they fit into the same mold of the original series. Howard Shore has also returned to score the films, and that's a great thing as well. The cinematography and music were two of the things that really made the original trilogy standout, and it's great to have these returning components to the series, making them mesh with the original series. Shore does an excellent job once again, really crafting the mood and feel of all the scenes in the film, making what is one of the best, and most sweeping, scores in recent memory.

While 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' may not be a perfect return, or even the best of the Middle Earth series thus far, it's not a slouch either. Taken as it's own thing, it's very good, but could be slightly trimmed down a bit to cut some fat off the run time. Led by an excellent trio of actors, an excellent score, and some absolutely breathtaking cinematography, it alone makes returning to this world absolutely worth it. It's good to see Jackson back in fine form, but a less is more approach for the next two films may be something he should think about. Overall, the film sets up what should be a rather fun trilogy down the road, and it's nice to revisit some old friends again. Even a decade later, Middle Earth is still a place that many can call home and enjoy new adventures in.

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  1. The Hobbit is an enjoyable movie, the action is intense, the technical aspects are outstanding, the story gets more interesting as it moves along and despite some characters I didn't care for and a really slow hour or so, I still had fun watching the movie and it'll please you if you're a LOTR fan. Good review PJ.