Thursday, December 13, 2012
Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Let me say right up front that I quite enjoyed "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," but I don't expect most other people will. At unless they're hardcore Tolkienites like myself.
Director Peter Jackson and his creative team have more or less abandoned the modest children's book by J.R.R. Tolkien that acted as a gentle precursor to the grander, grimmer "Lord of the Rings." In its place, they've given us something like "LotR 2: The Prequel."
In tone and in story structure, the first triad of the "Hobbit" adventure feels like a further extension of the trilogy from 2001-03. There's a big fight in the goblin mountain home that visually owes much to the Mines of Moria sequence in "Fellowship of the Ring." Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the wandering wizard do-gooder, again whispers into a moth's ear to summon giant eagles to save the day. Andy Serkis, the digital acting god who brought the tortured Gollum to slithery life in "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," is back to play the ultimate riddle game with wayward hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
In stuffing "The Hobbit" with all sorts of elements from Tolkien lore not contained in the book -- and inventing a whole bunch of new stuff entirely on their own -- Jackson and his cast and crew take a major risk. Splitting the 300-page book into two movies seemed like an obvious move, given the carryover of ambition from the "Lord" trilogy.
But in choosing to make it into three flicks (and not short ones, either -- "Journey" clocks in at 169 minutes), they may have crossed the proverbial bridge too far. This movie seems overstuffed and languidly paced. The iconic "Unexpected Party" that opens the tale just seems to ramble on and on, like ... well, an uninvited dinner guest who overstays his welcome.
And yet I did not mind the extravagance, because I'm such a big fan of Tolkien's various works. The real appeal to people like me is the expansive mythology that the British author spent a lifetime building. Reading his books always felt like we were exploring an entire world, but only seeing a small glimpse of it any given time.
As a result, I did not mind the inclusion of another wizard character named Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), despite the fact that he gets a mere one mention each in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," and never plays any kind of significant role. Here, he more or less takes over the movie for a small stretch.
The one thing I find most questionable was the choice by Jackson et al to raise the stakes of the story. The novel starts off as a simple adventure yarn about 13 dwarves determined to kill the dragon who drove them off their mountain kingdom long ago, and gradually snowballs into important events that affect the entire world of Middle Earth.
This movie appears to lose patience, adding to and twisting around the plot so it seems like all the great powers of the land -- wizards, elves, orcs, a mysterious Necromancer occupying a dark corner -- have their entire attention bent toward this little misfit band.
Bilbo (Martin Freeman) acts as our eyes and ears, the proverbial normal person recruited to go along on the adventure at the behest of Gandalf. Purportedly a professional burglar, Bilbo is a timid soul who seems to possess no discernible skills other than writing letters and taking long walks. But he soon shows his true stuff, helping the dwarves battle three lumbering trolls and conniving his way past the murderous Gollum when he's cut off from his troupe in the bowels of the Misty Mountains.
Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the leader of the dwarves, gets the Aragorn treatment by being gifted with all sorts of backstory and inner turmoil that's only hinted at in the book. Armitage is a commanding presence, and helps us see why others would follow this beggar prince on his outlandish journey.
Having other actors from the "Lord of the Rings" films thrown in haphazardly quickly grows old -- Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian Holm as older Bilbo, and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett as elf lords Elrond and Galadriel, respectively. The latter pair show up to fret and scowl at Thorin's trouble-making ways.
"Every good story deserves embellishment," Gandalf tells Bilbo at the beginning of the film, and Peter Jackson appear to have taken this up as their motto and mantra. Personally, I mostly welcomed the copious add-ons. But my guess is that casual fans of the "Lord of the Rings" will be turned off by what they may regard as an unnecessary reboot.
3 stars out of four