Saturday, December 15, 2012

Back Again: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a curious film. It’s an unhurried adventure film that will arrive at many thrilling cliffhangers eventually and whenever it feels like it. It’s a film possessed with its own rhythms and pacing, a sometimes-welcome casual disregard for the conventions of blockbuster filmmaking. Oh, it is still stuffed to the gills with action, incident, quips, and effects, but such standard spectacle requirements are served up with unusual timing. Returning J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy realm of Middle Earth to movie screens for the first time since The Lord of the Rings trilogy wrapped up in 2003, writer-director Peter Jackson is clearly enjoying time spent in this world. He shows it to us in detail, unapologetically luxuriating in every bit of his film’s backstories, tangents, and rumination of conflict to come. As someone who saw and enjoyed the three earlier films when they rolled through theaters a decade ago, but hasn’t seen any of them all the way through in the time since, I was struck by how much I was glad to be back in the world of travelers walking through sweeping second unit landscapes to the tune of a great Howard Shore score.

But though the world is the same, it’s a much different kind of story this time around. From what I recall, Rings had narrative drive, a quick pace, world-ending stakes, and deep wells of emotion. But of course, each of those films adapted one novel each. An Unexpected Journey has been adapted by Jackson (along with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro) from just a hundred or so pages from Tolkien’s comparatively slender prequel novel. Instead of a sweeping quest to save Middle Earth from certain doom, we’re following a scrappy band of dwarves on a mission to regain their homeland (and treasure) from a dragon. It’s a simpler quest, one played lighter and more boisterously entertaining on the page and so, you’d think, lends itself less to the kind of bombast and self importance in which Jackson is fully prepared to indulge. Though the first Hobbit film is ultimately slighter in some ways than the epic weight of the previous trilogy, it’s a worthy film all its own that works differently as it strikes off to tell a story all its own.

We start, after lengthy introductory expository scenes that takes us hither and yon through time and space, with a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), sixty years before he’ll leave his precious cursed ring to Frodo (Elijah Wood) and begin the events we’ve previously seen dramatized. Bilbo is visited by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who insufficiently prepares him for a visit by the aforementioned band of dwarves, a raucous, hungry bunch who laugh and sing, but turn gravely seriously when discussing the logistics of their plans. Led by their king-in-exile Thorin (Richard Armitage), twelve dwarves prepare for the long trek to the Lonely Mountain where they hope to capture what’s rightfully theirs from the fearsome Smaug, a creature here only glimpsed through shadow and fire in flashback.

After some expected hemming and hawing, Bilbo decides to head off with the group for the sake of adventure. The journey will take them into contact with aloof regal elves, vengeful slimy orcs, an eccentric woodlands wizard, hungry, dimwitted trolls, and, in the film’s best scene, the pathetic Gollum (Andy Serkis) ready for riddles. From the peaks of sentient mountains to the dewy caverns of pimply goblins, these adventurers trudge, trying desperately to keep the group together and survive along the way to their destination. Their task is a personal one of revenge and honor. Unlike the clear, heavy burden of the stakes in the trilogy, this film is an epic episodic adventure of inner drive and private motivations. There are hints at powerful emotions undergirding it all, themes of unintended consequences and the ways choices made in the heat of the moment reverberate through time and can lead to outcomes both good and bad. It’ll be interesting to see if and how these thematic through-lines are teased out in films to come.

As it is, An Unexpected Journey is a fine, fun fantasy film, involving and even a little bit moving around the edges. The design is seamless and impeccable. The effects work is impressive. The protagonists are largely loveable, funny and sympathetic. The villains are vague yet despicable all the same. The action, when it arrives, is generally well done, tense, exceedingly well choreographed, and even with some wit on occasion. This is the kind of film with the room and will to explore just about anything it would like to do. Veer off to spend some time with a sick hedgehog? Why not? Pause for a meeting between Gandalf and some characters from the Rings trilogy while Bilbo and the dwarfs get a head start? Sure! It gives the whole thing a feeling of existing in a rich, lived-in fantasy world that inevitably lost me from time to time, but I joined back up with it soon enough. Jackson makes Middle Earth the kind of place that seems to go on forever in every direction out of frame. If you fall under its spell, it’s the kind of nearly-three-hour movie that feels three hours in a good way. It won me over and nearly pushed me away and then won me back again a few times over, and by the time the credits started I was still ready for more.

Since this particular film is available in so many different – and contentious – viewing options, it’s worth noting for the record that I saw it in 24fps 2D. 

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