Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Returns Fans To Middle Earth, But Asks More Of The Audience.

The Good: Effects, Performances
The Bad: Pacing, Light on character development
The Basics: An adequate prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey sufficiently starts the set-up for The Lord Of The Rings!

Prequels are a tough sell for me. In going back to make the prequel to The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (reviewed here!), objectively it is a tougher sell than some might expect. After all, the prequel films, which now begin with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feature few real surprises. After all, the novel has been around for decades and, more importantly, it is instantly established that the protagonist cannot possibly die. This, usually, diminishes some of the enthusiasm for investing in a prequel. And, while it is hard for fans of Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of The Lord Of The Rings not to let their heart skip a beat the moment the first words in the familiar typeface Jackson uses appear on the screen.

But the longer The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey continues, the harder it is to maintain that enthusiasm. While there is an immediate surge of joy to return to the familiar and magical setting of Middle Earth – though with the time spent now in Hobbiton, one wonders how the lesson on Hobbits in the extended edition of Fellowship Of The Ring will hold up when one sits down to watch all six films back to back – the pacing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not as well-executed as in The Lord Of The Rings. Moreover, the stakes are no longer the world, so there is no sense of urgency to the mission the protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, finds himself on.

Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit, living in Hobbiton, generally happy with his existence. But then, his home is overrun by dwarves and the wizard Gandalf the Grey. After being frustrated by the slovenly nature of the Dwarves and the indifference of their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, Bilbo rejects the entreaties of Gandalf to join their quest. Uninterested in helping the Dwarves invade Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, to retake it from the dark forces that have conquered it, Bilbo has a change of heart once his annoying guests depart.

Catching up with the Dwarves, Bilbo comes to appreciate more what their fight is for as he comes to understand the importance of his own home. And through a series of conflicts with Trolls, Goblins and other monsters that inhabit the land outside Hobbiton, Bilbo grows closer to the Dwarves. After helping thwart a trio of Trolls, side trip to Rivendell and falling into a goblin trap, Bilbo feels he is truly a member of the company. His bond with the Dwarves is shaken when Bilbo ends up frightened and alone when he is lost in caverns, which puts him into peril he cannot even understand at the time and leads to a conflict with Thorin's oldest enemy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is good, but for those looking for more than to be dazzled by the visual effects, it takes a lot of faith and the trust that this is an essential step in the character development of Bilbo Baggins. The visual majesty of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth – which still, is vastly better than what Guillermo Del Toro might have done given his creative repetition in his works – is tempered by a pace that is, at times, agonizingly slow. Say what you will about the multiple endings to Return Of The King, but they do something to resolve the massive scale of the films and make it more intimate. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey aches to build the world of Middle Earth and it does so without the sense of incredible importance that The Lord Of The Rings possessed.

That said, for a film that builds to the prequel moments of The Lord Of The Rings, with Bilbo encountering Gollum and discovering the One Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does what it can as well it can. The discovery of the One Ring is an incidental thing and, as annoying as that might seem, it makes it entirely plausible that a character as smart as Gandalf – as portrayed in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - would remain ignorant of it as long as he did. On its own, away from knowing where the Saga is going, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just a slow build-up, a quest based on nationalism for a nation viewers are unlikely to feel compelling empathy for that abruptly ends well before it actually reaches its conclusion.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is somewhat low on character development; this is a film more concerned with establishing Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf The Grey, and Thorin Oakenshield, than it is with changing them. The film begins to challenge them, especially Bilbo, whose sensibilities about home and its relationship to the larger world slowly change.

On the acting front, Sir Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchette, and Christopher Lee, all flawlessly retake the roles they had in The Lord Of The Rings. Richard Armitage explodes into the franchise as Thorin Oakenshield and he is magnetic, albeit with almost the same level of screen gravitas as Viggo Mortensen had as Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings. The real acting triumph for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes from Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Freeman had a role he had to both mimic and make his own, taking over for Sir Ian Holm’s Bilbo (a task made more potentially difficult by the aged Bilbo, performed by Holm, appearing in the film!). Freeman takes the challenge, managing to deepen the goofy aspects Ian Holm’s Bilbo and also bringing out the more serious side of the character. Bilbo is essentially a bit character in The Lord Of The Rings, so Freeman has to flesh out the character while still making it seem like he would reasonably evolve into the aged Bilbo. He nails it. Freeman has an amazingly expressive body language that makes him viable as a reluctant quest participant and he plays Bilbo as the common man, as opposed to even attempting to bring heroic stature to the character.

For those who can stomach the slower nature of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the way it takes its time to truly establish Middle Earth – showing instead of relying excessively on voiceover exposition this time – will find themselves eager for the next chapter. For those who are not as into fantasy films, it is hard to see how this would be the one to sell them on the genre.

For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
Beautiful Creatures
The Twilight Saga
Alice In Wonderland


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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