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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

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Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage

In the immortal words of Milhouse Van Houten, "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?" Not that Peter Jackson's long awaited return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn't a perfectly entertaining film, but it does feel padded beyond necessity. Much of it is thrilling, some of it is a little boring... it's a mixed bag, basically, but worth seeing despite its flaws.

The story of The Hobbit is recounted by Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who is writing it out to be read by his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). It takes place 60 years earlier, when Bilbo (now played by Martin Freeman) is visited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and presented with the opportunity to participate in an adventure. Fixed in his ways and habits, Bilbo declines but that doesn't stop Gandalf from going ahead and inviting a company of dwarves to Bilbo's house, sending the reluctant host into fits of anxiety. The dwarves are led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), whose family once ruled the Lonely Mountain and the Kingdom of Erebor until the dragon Smaug seized it, displacing all who once resided there and rendering them a wandering tribe. Now Thorin plans to take back what is rightfully his, with the help of Gandalf and the team of dwarves, but the company is still in need of a burglar who can help steal the treasure of Erebor back from Smaug. Gandalf is determined that Bilbo serve that function and, though both Thorin and Bilbo are dubious of Bilbo's ability to successfully fulfil the role, he ends up joining in the adventure.

The road from the Shire to Erebor is fraught with difficulties. The group encounters a trio of Trolls who want to devour them, they wander into a battle between stone giants (which looks sort of like rock em sock em rockbots), they're captured by Goblins, and throughout their journey they are pursued by Orcs under the command of Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), an old enemy of Thorin who, in their previous encounter, relieved Azog of one of his arms. After getting separated from the rest in the Goblin caves, Bilbo also has an encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis) which requires him to participate in a game of riddles to save his life. It also brings into his possession the object at the heart of the Lord of the Rings films.

The story of The Hobbit (adapted by LotR regulars Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, in addition to Guillermo del Toro, who at one time was slated to direct this series) is Odyssey-like in its structure, in that it is comprised of several small adventures that make up one big adventure. The downside to this kind of storytelling is that some segments will be much more interesting than others, and that's certainly the case here. Although the segments are successful in and of themselves, it's hard not to feel a little impatient as the film goes on and so little progress is made towards what is the ultimate goal of the story. The Lord of the Rings films had its share of diversionary side-stories as well, but a key difference is that the stakes in the previous story were a lot higher than they are here and as a result the breadth of the narrative felt justified. Here it just feels long for the sake of being long and because the characters aren't as well-developed as they were in the previous series (there are 13 dwarves, most of them indistinct from each other), we don't care about them, or the difficulties they face, quite as much.

That being said, while The Hobbit is a bit of a disappointment in comparison with the previous series, it isn't a bad film. The world of Middle Earth is beautifully rendered (at least in the version that I saw it, 2D at the usual frame rate) and there is absolutely nothing to complain about with respect to the special effects. The screenplay has a nice mix of humor and drama and Freeman delivers a fine performance as Bilbo, who struggles against his own self-doubt, as well as the frequently vocalized doubts of Thorin, to prove himself. I didn't feel terribly enthusiastic about the film as I left the theater, but I think it's possible that once the entire Hobbit series has been released and its pieces can be considered in their own context, rather than in comparison against Lord of the Rings, I might come to appreciate what this film has to offer a little bit more.

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