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|Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey
by Brett Gallman
Before embarking on their adventure in “The Hobbit,” Gandalf insists to Bilbo Baggins that all stories deserve a good embellishment or two, a phrase that might as well serve as Peter Jackson’s motto during his own unexpected journey that’s carried him back to Middle-earth to finish what he started over a decade ago.Not content to merely produce an adaptation of Tolkien’s enchanting little prelude to “The Lord of the Rings,” Jackson has embellished up an entire trilogy around it, an endeavor that’s easy to write off as a self-indulgent folly until you recall that this is the same guy who impossibly adapted the original novels in the first place. During the course of this first chapter, Jackson stirs up similar wellsprings of emotion and grandeur that easily remind you of that and, while “An Unexpected Journey” isn’t exactly a miracle like its predecessors, it alleviates any doubts about his decision to extend our stay in Middle-earth.
"Still has a nice ring to it."
While “The Hobbit” isn’t nearly the risk “Lord of the Rings” was, it might be a more ambitious undertaking since Jackson has taken the kernel of the original novel and has crafted it into a full-on prequel. Framed as a story being recollected by the elder Baggins (Ian Holm) to nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), the film opens as the two prepare for the former’s birthday celebration glimpsed in “Fellowship of the Ring” (Jackson’s thankfully gets his most on-the-nose, Lucas-like prequel moment out of the way early when Frodo affixes the “No Admittance” sign to Bilbo’s gate).
The film takes a cue from the first film’s form as well, opening with a spectacular prologue sequence that details the fall of a dwarf kingdom at the hands of Smaug (only glimpsed here as he lays waste to the city of Dale in a fiery, chaotic sequence that reveals Jackson hasn’t lost much of a step). This first bit of embellishing is also an important one that immediately introduces us to Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), eventual heir to the dwarf throne usurped by Smaug’s destruction, and repositions “The Hobbit” as his tale as well.
In fact, we don’t even meet the “younger” Bilbo (he’s technically still a sprightly 50 year old played by Martin Freeman) until about fifteen minutes into the film, when he’s finally called upon by Thorin’s company of dwarves headed by Gandalf (Ian McKellen). This occurs a few pages into the original Tokien novel, and Jackson wrings it for all its worth here, but it’s a worthwhile introduction that reminds us of the revelry and merriment to be found in Middle-earth before the War of the Ring. In many ways, the light-hearted scenes in Bilbo’s hobbit hole set the stakes for all that will eventually be lost, not only on a personal scale for those directly involved in the adventure, but also for the land as a whole.
“An Unexpected Journey” constantly attempts to straddle between the lightness of its source and the impending doom on the horizon for its world. Whereas Tolkien’s novel wasn’t a conscious prequel to “Lord of the Rings” (it was published first), this film very much is, so Jackson is stuck between paying fealty to the jaunty, children’s tale in “The Hobbit” and the more ponderous overtures from the following trilogy. Despite the contrasting tones, it ends up working incredibly well--impossibly so, even. In fact, the grafting of the larger “Rings” mythology onto “The Hobbit” works so well that I almost immediately dispensed with my qualms about it; no, this isn’t a faithful adaptation of “The Hobbit” itself, but it instead treads a fascinating place somewhere between that and elaborate fan fiction that adds a certain heft and profundity to the proceedings.
Unlike the “Star Wars” prequels, which hammered home every opportunity to connect itself with its previous films, “An Unexpected Journey” sort of allows the “Lord of the Rings” stuff to hang out around the edges. One of the most overt connections is Sylvester McCoy intruding as Radagast the Brown, an eccentric, almost acid-brained wizard investigating the emergence of a mysterious dark force in the edges of Mirkwood, and Jackson deftly weaves this into the main narrative as a sort of tag that gives the main quest more weight.
The connection is sold even further during the film’s other big prequel moment, the convening of the white council, a scene only hinted at in Tolkien lore but put on full display here to give Jackson an excuse to gather Gandalf, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (a delightful Christopher Lee relishing the opportunity to portray the White Wizard as he slowly creeps towards the dark side). Gandalf is interestingly set up as the prescient one who reads the various signs, such as the rumored appearance of a Necromancer, as evidence that Sauron’s return is imminent. And no sooner is the Dark Lord’s name dropped than the dwarves are quickly shuffled away from Rivendell, so Jackson doesn’t dwell too much on making this “Lord of the Rings: Episode One” and avoids losing “The Hobbit” along the way.
The novel’s narrative might actually benefit from Jackson’s bloat. Tolkien’s prose is often a two-fisted blast that plays out very much like the children’s story it was intended to be as Bilbo and company encounter trolls, wolves, and goblins without much downtime in between. Sometimes, reading “The Hobbit” is the equivalent of riding a roller coast and jumping right back in line. It moves with a breathless, episodic propulsion that the film can’t exactly escape, but Jackson does sequence in some nice stops. “An Unexpected Journey” is a tad messier than its predecessors (the awkward pacing finally catches up to him at the end, when he has to follow up a climactic action scene with…another climactic action scene), but it still reveals its director’s primal storytelling chops; even though Jackson’s gone out of his way to turn “The Hobbit” into a denser text, it’s easy to stay afloat in the sea of backstory and historical anecdotes, and the film often breezes along despite its 160 minute runtime.
Some of its episodes and sequences are worthy additions to the “Rings” canon. Moments both big and small swell with import, from a staggering sequence that finds the heroes between two mountain giants to the riveting “Riddles in the Dark” sequence that features a game of wits between the returning Gollum (performed again by Andy Serkis) and Bilbo. For every escape from the clutches from some foe (be it goblins, orcs, or trolls), there’s an intimate beat, such as the dwarves’ solemn, goosebump-inducing rendition of “Over the Misty Mountains Cold.”
The riddles scene is pivotal for what it will mean during the later trilogy, but it’s captivating here to watch Freeman engage Serkis’s incredible creation, again brought to life by impeccable effects work. Gollum seems more life-like than ever, and, in the span of about twenty minutes, Serkis recalls his depth and complexity; you can easily read his anxiety as he puzzles over Bilbo’s riddles, and his anguish and despair are palatable. There’s a dimension of pity, too, of course, and one of the film’s biggest emotional beats hinges on this; while Gollum’s fate during his encounter with Bilbo is never in doubt, Jackson turns it into a pivotal moment not only for the fate of Middle-earth, but for Bilbo as well.
Sheer spectacle alone didn’t carry the “Lord of the Rings” films, and the same is true of “The Hobbit” thanks to moments like these that keep the characters at the forefront. Richard Armitage is a true revelation as Thorin, and the film introduces a more thorough backstory for the character that renders him a hardened, cynical king without a throne. His greatness and nobleness as a leader is never in question, however--in many ways, he is the Aragorn of this tale, a dignified warrior looking to restore a lost glory. Many of the other dwarves are inevitably lost in the shuffle, but Ken Stott is wonderful as Balin, a sort of lion in winter who wistfully recalls the old days when the halls were full of merriment and music. He is literally in the service of Thorin, but he also sells the character to audiences with a superb monologue that highlights a tragic side to his master’s story. It’s one of many times that Thorin threatens to steal the movie from its title character.
This is not to disparage Martin Freeman’s Bilbo (Armitage is simply that good, and Jackson’s embellishments with Thorin are fascinating), a character who is delightful in his own whimsical, doe-eyed way. Freeman is perfectly finicky and reluctant early on, and it’s appropriate that he’s almost considered an afterthought in his own movie at this point; after all, he’s doubted by his company, especially Thorin. If there’s a unifying arc to this opening chapter, it’s Bilbo’s growth from reluctant hero into a plucky, reliable member of the troupe. Most of the film’s emotionally resonant scenes are built around this, and they’re all very Jackson-esque moments, all melodramatic and crutched up by Howard Shore’s sweeping (and sometimes familiar) score. They work, of course, but this cast--and this film--earns it; not simply content to coast on the waves of nostalgia (though it does dip its toes from the shore), “An Unexpected Journey” stands alone about as well as it can.
From a technical perspective, it finds continuity in the original designs, and it feels very much like the familiar trappings of “Lord of the Rings.” Much has been made about Jackson’s decision to shoot the film in 48fps, an advancement I can’t speak for (I saw the film in glorious 24fps); however, something about the film did seem a little bit more artificial and slick than the previous films. Perhaps this is due to Jackson’s move to digital and a bigger reliance on CGI as well; the effects generally stand up, but certain elements feel a little more phony and cartoonish compared to the more practical productions of the original. Middle-earth is still undeniably gorgeous, and its soundtrack has never been more majestic (Shore’s main composition, “Misty Mountains” immediately joins the ranks of the franchise’s great motifs).Maybe this film appeals to my inner-Hobbit, the part of me that seeks comfort and familiarity; when the film opens to the strains of the familiar Shire theme, it’s difficult not to feel like you’ve returned home. However, Jackson isn’t exactly treating this like a victory lap; instead, he’s come back to Middle-earth to finish a job and his first step is done with great gusto. If “An Unexpected Journey” is Jackson’s plea to stick with him as he attempts to forge a rich, voluminous text from a comparatively frothy source material, then he has my axe.
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originally posted: 12/12/12 23:59:42