Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What has Peter Jackson got in his pocketses? 

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

The moment Tolkien fanatics have dreamed of has finally arrived: the first of a three-part adaptation of the beloved introduction to Middle Earth, "The Hobbit", arrived in theatres this weekend. I was lucky enough to view it early Saturday evening, and the lines at the theatre were long even though an ice storm was going on outside. Unlike the usual theatre scenario these days, this crowd was on its best behavior: no unruly kids running up and down the aisle, no chatting teens, no cell phones in use during the movie at all that I could see. We were all there to be totally absorbed in the experience and transported to a world that is fictional but, thanks to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as familiar as though we were hobbits ourselves.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" in 1937 as a tale for his own children to read. It takes place some 60 years prior to the events described in "The Lord of the Rings". A hobbit resembles a man, but is smaller with hairy feet, loves to eat, and lives generally uneventfully in a tastefully decorated underground house. This is the story of one such hobbit who did what was considered unthinkable for his kind: he left home for an adventure. And not just any adventure: this had far-reaching implications, although he had absolutely no idea at the time.

The hobbit in question, Bilbo Baggins, is visited one day by a wizard, Gandalf, whom he only vaguely remembers from childhood. Gandalf, unbeknownst to Bilbo, arranges for the hobbit to host 13 dwarves in his home for the evening, including their king, Thorin. The dwarves are about to embark on a mission to reclaim the treasure that was stolen from them by Smaug, a massive dragon. They want Bilbo to come with them to serve as a burglar. Despite his initial protestations, he finds himself abandoning all his creature comforts for reasons even he doesn't fully understand.

"Unexpected Journey" introduces us to many creatures that populate the world Tolkien created: trolls, elves, goblins/orcs, massive wolves known as wargs, and even more massive eagles. Because elves and wizards have incredibly long life spans, some of the characters from "Lord of the Rings" also appear in this tale. Perhaps most importantly, we get to see how it is that Bilbo meets Gollum and acquires a magical ring.

Because 3D movies give me headaches, I chose to see the 2D version. But even without the extra dimension, the look of the film is spectacular. Rivendell, home of the elves, was so beautiful it took my breath away. I grew up reading editions of "The Hobbit" containing the wonderful illustrations of Alan Lee. His influence is all over this movie. Bilbo's home in particular looked exactly as I had always pictured it in my head. And Thorin's map, the key to the journey, is straight from the book.

There was also impressive attention to detail with the costumes and appearance of all the characters, even the ones who were fully computer generated. Gollum looks more realistic than ever before; I could practically swear I saw individual pores on his forehead. Because I have a cognitive problem differentiating between faces with similar features, I appreciated that each of the 13 dwarves had a unique look. The goblins/orcs and trolls were appropriately ugly, and the wargs appropriately fierce.

I would be remiss if I didn't address the chief complaint I have been hearing about "The Hobbit": that it is too long. This first installment  runs 169 minutes, yet only covers the first six chapters of a 19 chapter book. The chief reason for this is simple: back stories galore. Battles and important meetings that are only hinted at in the book or appear in appendices elsewhere are fully fleshed out and incorporated into the film version. So we actually get to see how Thorin lost his home and his gold, we see Gandalf's discussion of the Necromancer, and we see stone giants at play. This may be a bit much for those unfamiliar with the books, but it will delight those who have read over and over every word Tolkien has ever written and want to see it all on screen. There were two places where I thought the embellishment went on too long: the seemingly endless chase through the caverns of the goblin/orc king, and the story of Radagast. But I was rather pleased with the rest of the "bonus" story.

The movie's PG-13 rating is appropriate. These are not Disney dwarves; these are fierce warriors who fight with swords. There is not excessive gore, but young kids might find it a tad scary, and they might not be willing to sit still for a three-hour movie. Those 12 and up who are already familiar with the story will be more likely to really get into it.

"The Hobbit" An Unexpected Journey" is director/co-writer Peter Jackson's gift to the fans who have been clamoring for more ever since "Return of the King". It is only one course of a delicious meal; part two, "The Desolation of Smaug", doesn't come out for another year. But this appetizer is definitely one to savor.

I like your review. One thing I have learned from one of my more "well-read" friends is that Peter Jackson, in order to satisfy the studios demand for a two-part in the first place, is including material from other Tolkien works. And while these were not originally in "the Hobbit" they were happening during the same time frame.
I do remember reading some of this extra material, but it has probably been at least a decade since I have done so. I re-read "The Hobbit" itself a couple of weeks ago to re-fresh my memory. I think the inclusion of the extras for the most part enhances the basic story. Interesting that the studios wanted a two-part film considering how much trouble Jackson had getting anyone to let him do "Lord of the Rings" as a trilogy; back then, the studios wanted it all in one film, two at most! Glad he held out for three, as it should be.
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