The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (Novel: J.R.R. Tolkien)
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Mizrahi, Lee Pace, Manu Bennett
PG-13for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
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Returning to Middle Earth is like returning to a favorite vacation retreat and with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the audience is quickly and easily transported back to the places that they fell in love with 11 years ago.
Focusing on the J.R.R. Tolkien children’s novel The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and crew take audiences to a time before The Lord of the Rings trilogy and expose them to the events that shaped the world and future of the vaunted trilogy. Receiving a visit from an old family acquaintance, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is 60 years younger than in the original trilogy and quite satisfied to live out his comfortable and uneventful life in the Shire. Knowing his heart better than he does, the gray wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) arranges for a company of thirteen dwarves to invade his home one fine Summer evening before embarking on a quest to retake their ancestral home in The Lonely Mountain, far to the west of the Shire.
While Freeman the actors that comprise the dwarven company are new to the franchise, a number of familiar faces have made a return. Joining McKellan as Gandalf are Hugo Weaving as Elrond of Rivendell, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel of Lorien, Christopher Lee as the white wizard Saruman, Ian Holm as elder Bilbo, Elijah Wood his nephew Frodo Baggins and Andy Serkis as one of the screens most celebrated villains Gollum. Their presence adds familiarity to the production, but they generally have very little impact on the events of this first feature.
Much of the film is devoted to rediscovering Bilbo and defining his stalwart compatriots. Above all else, Freeman is an affable presence. His Bilbo is quiet, cumbersome and adorably inexperienced. His ability to blend humor and pathos in subtle and inviting ways makes for an easier adventure for the audience. Freeman pulls us into Bilbo’s unique personality with little effort and creates one of the franchise’s best interpretations.
In Jackson’s original trilogy, he deftly introduced the nine members of the fellowship without creating undue confusion. While Merri and Pippin were nearly the same, there was enough distinction to make them interesting. With The Hobbit, Jackson’s task was far more daunting, having to introduce thirteen dwarves, only a handful of which seemed easily distinguished and not based on their gross body weight. It’s easy to recognize the individual dwarves, but only a few of them are given the needed development to stand out against their background companions. Leading the company is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. Ostensibly, this is Bilbo Baggins’ story, but Thorin is one of the key members of the company. He’s given plenty of backstory and Armitage makes him very easy to admire and understand.
His loyal second in command, Balin is playd with superb expertise and gentle, wizened exactitude by Ken Stott. Having outlived many in the company and with first-hand experience of the benevolence and strength of Thorin, he deftly conveys his knowledge to the audience. James Nesbitt’s performance as the dimwitted, but ultimately warm and friendly Bofur works in tandem with Freeman’s growth as Bilbo. His confidence and unfiltered honesty help propel the story forward at key moments.
Of the remaining ten dwarves, six were easily distinguished from the rest without getting very much screentime. Those actors: Graham McTavish as the stalwart warrior Dwalin; Mark Hadlow as the beverage connosior Dori; Stephen Hunter as the obscenely overweight Bombur; Adam Brown as the young and excitable Ori; and Dean O’Gorman and Aidan as brothers Fili and Kili respectively add youthful energy to the film. While O’Gorman, Turner and Armitage are often cricitized for not being grungy or unappealing enough to play dwarves, having a nice separation of general levels of attractiveness adds depth to the race and to the company.
Unfortunately for William Kircher, John Callen, Peter Hambleton and Jed Brophy as dwarves Bifur, Oin, Gloin and Nori respectively, the script doesn’t give them much to stand out, but hopefully will get some development in later installments.
While the adventure Bilbo finds is frought with orcs, giants, trolls and assorted nefarious denizens of Middle Earth, the most compelling dimension of the first film of the three-part-broken novel, is the exploration of trust, loneliness and acceptance. In spite of childhood adventures in the near countryside, Bilbo’s free-spirited nature craves danger and excitement, but is accompanied by doubt, frustration and homesickness. That his companions have spent long years separated from their homeland by the invasion of a gold-hungry dragon named Smaug, Bilbo must come to terms with their disinclination to feel sympathy for his trepidations. This film is about Bilbo coming to terms with his discomfort and accepting that he must push aside his own desires and help those who have been displaced so tragically.
Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro may take some flack for the liberties they took with the Tolkien novel, but while the added subplots featuring Azog and Thorin, and Radagast the Brown, are not referenced even in the appendices Jackson said were tapped for additional material, they add interesting, complex layers to the story that enable it to move forward organically. The set-up for the eventual confrontation between the Council and the necromancer in Dol Guldur are exciting.
Still, it’s Bilbo that we’re unerringly drawn to. The marvelous battle of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum is magnificently handled, which should make his encounters in Mirkwood and against the dragon Smaug in the subsequent two films, quite enjoyable. While appreciation for this film can be had in the simple joys of returning to Middle Earth through the skilled efforts of the superior craftsmen who designed the world for the original trilogy, the series is so contingent upon the success of the stories of the subsequent two films, that it’s almost impossible to give this film a fair break without seeing the next two movies.
Fans of the franchise should have plenty to enjoy and while the film doesn’t work as well as a stand-alone piece as The Fellowship of the Ring did, the merits of An Unexpected Journey are so many that the minor quibbles I have about the sluggish pace of the first third and the unnecessary Bilbo/Frodo tie-in that is included at the beginning are largely irrelevant to my total enjoyment of the end product.
Guarantees: Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Visual Effects
Probables: Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Potentials: Original Score, Cinematography
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Song, Editing
January 6, 2013