Friday, December 14, 2012

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

I have an interesting history with J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, The Hobbit, finally getting the big screen treatment with the first part of a planned trilogy to bring the tome to life, An Unexpected Journey, now in theaters.

When I was in 8th grade, I played Bofur in a stage version of the book, in a joint production between Clay-Chalkville Middle School and Clay-Chalkville High School.  Bofur was one of the thirteen dwarves that came knocking on hobbit, Bilbo Baggins' door, recruiting him as their "burglar" to  sneak into their mountain fortress that is now under rule of a vile dragon, named Smaug.  I've always been very fond of Bofur as a character, and am delighted to see how director Peter Jackson and actor James Nesbitt have expanded his role into the primary form of comic relief in The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey.  To cut to the chase, as a big fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and having a sentimental fondness for The Hobbit, I find The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey all the more stirring.

Pretty much the same crew from The Lord of the Rings trilogy returns behind the camera for The Hobbit trilogy, with the first installment not only proving to be as technically impressive as the groundbreaking effects work in The Lord of the Rings, but also surpassing it in many ways.  The visual effects from WETA are better than ever, with their pioneering motion capture technology having taken many significant steps since The Return of the King in 2003, with characters like the despicable, yet lovable, schizophrenic creature, Gollum, now having a wider range of emotion than he was ever able to relay in the previous installments.  Of course, what makes The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey such a joy, is that it feels like coming home after a long time abroad.

From the first moments of the film, we see old places and old faces.  From the first sights of the Shire, to Ian Holm as old Bilbo once more, narrating this story.  There's Elijah Wood as Frodo in a brief cameo, and then we get reintroduced to Ian McKellen's Gandalf, while welcoming Martin Freeman into the role of a Bilbo, 60 years younger, who still manages to make us feel as if we've known his Bilbo as long as we have Ian Holm's.  Even the music, by composer Howard Shore, harks back to The Lord of the Rings, with the Shire theme played as beautifully as ever before.  This film just knows how to stir your memories, and already has you drawn into the story before you even really meet any new characters.  With that said, while The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey does feel like The Lord of the Rings, it becomes it's own thing very quickly.

The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey feels of the same world, but like how a film about the Gulf War will be different from a film about World War II, one is set at a more innocent time, and The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey takes that concept and runs with it.  It's funnier than The Lord of the Rings, with more emphasis on humor and a wider range of traditional fantasy.  Trolls did not talk in the other films, nor did Goblins, but they did in the book, and so they do in this film, often to hilarious results.  Jackson and his cast and crew play up all of the British humor that Tolkien included in the book, and do not shy away from it, just to make it feel like The Lord of the Rings (which coincidentally was written twenty years after The Hobbit).  Not to mention, the relentless sense of adventure from Tolkien's book is here as well.  The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey is an adventure film, it's not a majestic epic like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it's like a storybook bedtime story.  Many of the visuals have this golden sheen to them, of sunlight streaming through trees and climbing over mountain tops, creating an inviting aura around the scenes that was not of the prior trilogy.  As well, the fellowship of dwarves, led by the heroic, yet stubborn Thorin Oakenshield, are a camaraderie as lovable as the Fellowship of the Ring, and composer Howard Shore does not sit on his laurels, having composed a score that takes many of the cues from The Lord of the Rings and incorporates them with a new theme based on the dwarf song, "Song of the Lonely Mountain."  It's sweeping and majestic, and brilliantly sung by musician Neil Flynn in the credits.  This film truly is a feat that is equal to what has already come before it.

If you're already a fan of Middle Earth, you will love The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey.  You kind of get the feeling that Peter Jackson is no longer trying to pick up new fans with these films, but rather he's just trying to serve the already fans.  The truth is, the way Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he wrote it like a children's adventure storybook, and the film does have that feel in terms of the tone and the  visuals that Jackson creates, but Jackson also takes the rare opportunity to expand Middle Earth.  Using details from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson and fellow screenwriters, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro, flesh out areas in The Hobbit that add further depth of character to these often slight characters from the original book, allowing for a far richer, and far more emotional experience.  It's actually kind of like Peter Jackson -- who released an extended version of all three Lord of the Rings' films after they came out -- decided to release the extended version in theaters this time about.  Will it seem too long to someone who is just a passing cinemagoer?  Probably, but to fans, it's a treasure trove of joy.

The film lays the seeds for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with us seeing, not only how Bilbo found the one ring, but also promising to answer, in the next installment, what happened to ultimate villain, Sauron, between his demise at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, to his rise throughout the rest of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The way Peter Jackson has approached the first installment of The Hobbit, promises to not only answer a few questions left lingering from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but also manages to be a rip-roaring adventure film that can stand on its own for fans of Middle Earth, marking this film as an entertaining and emotional classic of cinema.

I give The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey an A+!

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