Friday, December 21, 2012

A middling 'journey' to Middle Earth

Director Peter Jackson returns to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of a new trilogy following the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf and a merry band of dwarfs.

Jackson has made the dubious decision of stretching "The Hobbit," a 300-page book written for children before the epic "Lord of the Rings," over three films by adding material from in the appendices of "Lord of the Rings."

When it was announced "The Hobbit" would be three films (originally planned as two), I was deeply skeptical and this first film, clocking in at 169 minutes, hasn't entirely convinced me it was the right decision. Having seen the film twice, I can say there are many great scenes that are completely wonderful, but there are also parts that feel like padding.

The film opens with a thrilling prologue in which the dwarfs lose their kingdom and wealth to the gold-coveting dragon Smaug. Then there are some pleasant, but entirely superfluous scenes with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood). Eventually, the story begins proper with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) inviting young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) on an adventure with a motley crew of 12 dwarfs eager to take back their home and gold from Smaug.

This leads to the film's first truly delightful sequence: Bilbo dealing with the unexpected gathering of Gandalf and the dwarfs in his Hobbit hole. Freeman is hilarious in this scene as the anxiety ridden and increasingly flustered hobbit. The lively song "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" is a real treat.

The initially hesitant Bilbo ultimately can't resist the temptation of seeing the world outside his quiet little life and joins the adventure, which includes encounters with trolls, goblins, wolves and orcs. The confrontation with the trolls, whom intend to eat Bilbo and the dwarfs, is another fantastic scene. It is exciting with a sly sense of humor as Bilbo delays the trolls by discussing the best way to cook dwarf.

A visit to the elven kingdom of Rivendell, which in the book is time of relaxation, is full of tension. In fact much of "An Unexpected Journey" has been darkened to match the mood of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." "The Hobbit" had a different, lighter tone than the more densely written "Lord of the Rings."

Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader of the dwarfs, has become a brooding tragic hero on the level of Bruce Wayne. He has a nasty chip on his shoulder in regards to elves and Mr. Baggins. In terms of storytelling, this works fine for the film, but it is a departure from the book that could disappoint fans. Thorin's pride, a key theme of the story, is established, though, and will prove important in subsequent films.

The addition of a vengeful adversary from Thorin's past who is chasing after the dwarfs adds more action, but feels gratuitous rather than enriching and deepening the story.

These complaints don't ruin the film. Far from it. As was true with "Lord of the Rings," Jackson has made a film that is often astoundingly beautiful. There is so much going in every scene that you can simply stop following the characters and take in the beauty of the sets and environments. Jackson's Tolkien films are the best advertising that New Zealand — the stand in for Middle Earth — could hope for.

The acting throughout can't be faulted, although many of the dwarfs do get lost in the mix. McKellen, appearing as Gandalf for the fourth time, is still a sheer delight bringing humor, warmth, wisdom and just a hint of kookiness to the role.

Freeman is an ideal Bilbo. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He brings the necessary humor to the role, but also makes Bilbo's discovery of hidden strengths feel honest. He has a speech about missing home and yet deciding to stay on his journey that is genuinely touching.

Easily the best scene in the film is Bilbo's game of riddles with the spindly schizophrenic Gollum (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere in the film, Jackson has pumped up the action significantly, but these scenes are purely character driven. Freeman and Serkis brilliantly play off of each other. Serkis, who masterfully portrayed Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" is quite possibly even better here. He deserves an Oscar.

While the battle of wits is highly entertaining, a wordless a moment of compassion and mercy from Bilbo is just as an important. It may be the single best moment of filmmaking and acting in the whole film. In a few brief seconds, Jackson expresses a whole passage from the book. It is a moment of restraint and subtlety that acts as reminder that while Jackson is a tad bit self-indulgent, he also remains a skilled filmmaker.

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