"THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY"
Based upon The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Screenplay Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
For my final review of 2012, I must say that this was a terrific present to receive upon Savage Cinema's third birthday today!!!!
Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," may have been unexpected for the film's reluctant traveler and hero Bilbo Baggins, but for audiences who treasured Jackson's superlative and definitive screen adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, a return to Middle Earth was more than expected...it was inevitable. Even with all of the pre-production setbacks as well as the departure of Guillermo del Toro as the film's director, Peter Jackson's grand return to the directorial chair felt to be destined, ensuring that the resplendent cinematic vision and reverential attention to the detail of Tolkien's source material would remain intact. What began to trouble me, frankly, was when it was initially announced that The Hobbit, which runs less than 300 pages in text, would be cleaved into two films (albeit utilizing supplemental material Tolkien wrote to flesh out the narrative). When it was further announced that Jackson would be transforming the story into a new trilogy, I actually felt underwhelmed and honestly began to worry.
Believe me, dear readers. I am as much of a fan of Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" films as anyone else, especially as I have the trilogy, as a whole, in the very Top Ten of my favorite films from the previous decade of 2000-2009. Even so, I experienced a certain knee-jerk reaction against the idea of creating what will potentially be a nine hour plus epic out of material which was never designed to be an epic in the first place. I mean, what was Peter Jackson going to do that felt to be so artistically necessary? Was he planning on filming every word Tolkien ever wrote about Middle Earth for the sake of cinematic artistry or for the sake of obtaining as many Hobbit dollars as possible? With the severe critical panning he received for his previous film, the haunting, disturbing and for my tastes, highly underrated "The Lovely Bones" (2009), was making a three part return trip to Middle Earth a way of just going back to the well, to safe territory, to as much of a cinematic sure thing as there currently could be? My skepticism was very high regardless of how much I have loved Peter Jackson's work thus far.
Now that I have seen the film for myself, I am happy. Very happy. While I do not think that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" quite scaled the heights Jackson has previously set for himself (and truth be told, I am still somewhat unsure as to the full purposefulness of creating a full epic trilogy), the film, on the whole, is confirmation that Peter Jackson is destined to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's written tales to powerfully vibrant cinematic life. The film is an absolutely splendid production, providing you with everything you would expect from Jackson's adaptations, therefore making the experience feel like a long awaited visit with a treasured old friend. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is sumptuous, luxurious, lushly mammoth filmmaking and storytelling filled with stirring performances from the entire cast which are equaled by the stunning cinematography, the beautiful vistas of New Zealand, the meticulous set design, gorgeous musical score from series Composer Howard Shore and awe inspiring special effects. While I felt some bumps along the way during this journey, by the film's final third, I simply did not want for it to end.
Set 60 years before the events of "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" finds the young Bilbo Baggins (a wonderful Martin Freeman) being persuaded by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) to leave the comfort and security of his home in The Shire and join him on an adventure. Gandalf has requested to utilize Bilbo's completely untested and unproven skills as a "burglar" and join him on a quest to assist a band of 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to reclaim their former homeland at The Lonely Moountain, as it was decimated and overtaken by the fearsome dragon Smaug.
Certainly, all of this is much easier said than done when you add in nasty, unhygienic trolls, ferocious, gluttonous goblins, mountains that angrily spring to life during fierce thunderstorms, plus the relentless vengeance of Azog the Orc War Chief (Manu Bennett), once thought to be eliminated in battle by Thorin. And then, there is the matter of the One Ring Of Power which Bilbo happens upon and takes for his own, much to the disturbed Gollum's (Andy Serkis) dismay, and the slowly building doom about to envelop and potentially destroy Middle Earth.
In testament to Peter Jackson's unquestionable command over the visual representation of Tolkien's material, the overall tone of "The Hobbit; An Unexpected Journey" is completely enchanting and whimsical and as magical as a child's dreamworld. It carries a slightly lighter tone than "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy and I loved how the film practically pulsated from the screen with a golden sheen suggesting the purity and innocence of The Shire and the story as a whole through playful banter, antics and comedy and the shared singing of songs and merriment alongside the thrills and spills.
As wonderful as the film is, it is not a perfect one as I felt this film ultimately fell a tad short from Jackson's previously grand heights in this mythical arena. First of all, and aside from Thorin and perhaps one or two others, most of the 13 dwarves were pretty indistinguishable from each other. This was not a huge problem for the film but often times, the film was one where it just looked to be a bunch of bodies racing, yelling, and screaming hither and dither without any distinctive personalities to make the proceedings more emotionally resonant.
Another issue I had with the film is a surprising one. I do think that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," at a hair under three hours is just too long of a film. Now, I have always echoed the sentiments from the late, great Gene Siskel and the still great Roger Ebert when they exclaimed that "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short." I still hold to that sentiment but in the case of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," some trimming and tightening could have assisted this film greatly. Again my feelings are stemming from the issues I am having with Jackson creating a new trilogy in the first place. To my memory, The Hobbit, as a novel, was one that was rollicking, brisk and one that was much more of a page turning adventure than the more detailed canvas of The Lord Of The Rings. The book is a self-described "prelude," and perhaps Peter Jackson through strict discipline could have carved an extraordinary three to three and a half hour film from this one book and leave well enough alone.
Anyhow, there have been complaints about the film's first hour, which is almost entirely set within Bilbo Baggins' home. For me, I had no issue with that first third of the film. It was the mid section that felt padded to me as some battles felt to be ponderous CGI workouts that were ultimately impersonal. But, most troubling was a visit to the Elven world of Rivendell and a meeting with the White Council of Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This sequence, while dispensing with crucial information, was much in need of some editing as it just dragged, dragged, dragged the film to a near dead halt. The amount of seat shifting I was feeling by this point made me wonder if Jackson's ambition was severely clouding his abilities as a storyteller.
I really began to feel this emotion the most in regards to Bilbo Baggins himself! This film is called "The Hobbit" and poor Bilbo was in extreme danger of becoming tragically sidelined within his own story, as there are long stretches where he is not on screen and when he is, he has to compete with all of the goings-on around him. Now that Jackson has fully committed to turning this one book into three films, I do understand that the full progression of Bilbo's evolution will be that much more drawn out. But that said, I worried that he was becoming almost inconsequential to the tale of the dwarves.
But by the time the dwarves become captured by a band of underground goblins and Bilbo confronts Gollum and the One Ring Of Power and engages in some riveting riddles in the dark, everything in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" from this point onwards snapped into place heroically. The film that I was struggling with congealed beautifully, rising to a crescendo that made me hope the film would not end. And yes, the film's final shot is a killer, already making me salivate over next winter's installment!
But returning to the "riddles in the dark" sequence, I have to say that this section was the film's masterful high point as it finally placed Bilbo front and center and welcomed the return of the series' most tragic figure, Gollum. Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis are sensational together!! In regards to Freeman, who I have adored ever since his work on the original, British version of "The Office" is a wonderful addition to Jackson/Tolkein's universe. His completely understated work, which finds him in a near constant state of bemusement and armed with an ocean's worth of subtle, facial expressions makes Bilbo a character to root for instantly and happily follow absolutely anywhere in Middle Earth. His empathy grounds the film firmly to its childlike roots and Freeman could not have been a better choice to be the audience's guide for this adventure.
Yet, I must turn my attention to the massive, masterful talents of Andy Serkis. While he was not the very first, Serkis has proven himself to be the kingpin of this process of motion capture acting performances. His pioneering merging of the technological and the emotional in increasingly groundbreaking ways is flat out unprecedented and I feel that the time is long overdue for him to be honored for his jaw dropping work. His depiction of Gollum remains as heartbreaking as it is terrifying as he claws the ground like a drug addict, his best and worst instincts in constant, painful war with each other as he tries to keep the One Ring Of Power for his own forever and ever.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," at last, found its wings (like those majestic eagles) and began to soar higher and higher and I soon found myself (almost) forgetting my quibbles and questions about the validity of making a new trilogy or not and I just allowed myself to become enthralled.
Peter Jackson is truly one of the masters of the game of making big budget spectacle features that amaze the eyes and stir the soul. With "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," I feel that somehow, someway, he just may be on the path to blowing our minds and breaking our hearts in storytelling rapture and awe all over again.
What a way to finish out my movie going year of 2012. 2013, you definitely have your work cut out for you!!!