After a 9 year sabbatical, we finally get to return to Middle-Earth and it couldn’t be more beautiful. The first thing you will notice when you take in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is that it will rival Avatar in visual prowess and elegance. The way the camera moves to capture large environments and the smallest details is so beautifully orchestrated by Peter Jackson that you get that feeling you had almost a decade ago when you wanted to book a trip to New Zealand where they filmed the movies. While the movie does carry more lulls as it tends to set in motion the plot as opposed to explore deeper into the characters, this is still a welcome return to the world Tolkien and Jackson conjured up and qualifies as a must see.
The movie opens up with the original, older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) working on writing his story down for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, also returning and looking like he never left) to set the scene on the beginning of his adventurous ways. We then meet the younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) as he relaxes in Hobbiton, without a care in the world and content in his own being. However, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) is looking for companion to the group he has put together and the hobbit fits the description. While Bilbo is comfortable in his home and has no plans of leaving, he soon learns that the dwarves, led by Thorin, have no homeof their own, as they have been displaced from the dragon Smaug from their kingdom of Erebor 60 years prior.
They have gathered 13 brave dwarves to try to reclaim their home and treasure that was left behind. So off they go form Hobbiton to take back what is rightfully theirs and of course, no journey is not with resistance from trolls, goblins, elves and of course, those pesky orcs that seem to show up whenever furry feet and dwarves are in the vicinity.
This journey is a lot lighter in terms of mood than first chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. The Hobbit is more family friendly and doesn’t explore the depth of darkness in people as much as the previous trilogy had done. This forces the movie move briskly in order to keep the audiences immersed, but suffers some breaks towards the middle. It becomes apparent that they are trying to move in too many directions attempting to set up backstory, such as the hatred the dwarves have for the elves or how the orcs became invested into the fight. While necessary, these pauses break the action and flow and aren’t bookended by smooth transitions into the next part of the quest. While sometimes cumbersome, and the clear result of a moneygrab, there’s no shortage of story and different threads to process that it makes sense from storytelling standpoint.
I also believe that that lulls are made easier because this is probably the most visually striking film I have seen in my life. I saw this in the 48fps HFR 3D and I admit was a skeptic at first. The film does take 10-15 minutes to adjust to at first. An apt comparison would be the motionflow feature on most televisions that make the picture look like it was filmed like a soap opera. I compare it more to a video game cut scene, as the camera sweeps in and out of the action with no stoppage in fluidity and grace as your eyes widen to try to take in all the visual candy thrown in your direction. Yes, it is very off putting because it took me out of the action during the first introduction to Smaug, but soon as your eyes adjust, your senses are going to be celebrating in ecstasy. The theater for HFR 3D also employed the Dolby Atmos so the sound comes off terrifically and hearing the Howard Shore score pick up from where he left off sets the right tone for the whole movie. Howard Shore is Middle Earth and his melodies and mood setting are tailor made for this world of fantasy.
The performances are outstanding as Martin Freeman carries the audience on his back and plays their representative on the journey. He is as over his head as possible yet due to Freeman’s charm, charisma and self-awareness, he holds the audience’s hand as he takes in new fears and jumps into the fray with his companions, instilled with the same faith we put into him. Sir Ian McKellen does a fantastic job as Gandalf even though it is much of a performance we have seen before already. I couldn’t distinguish most of the dwarves as their characters weren’t high on the priority list of development, but dwarf leader Thorin is played with a fierce intensity by Richard Armitage, almost in the same vein that Viggo Mortensen played Aragorn in the previous movies. That is also not to say the other dwarves didn’t do a good job, they were all fantastic, but the spotlight is on the main characters in this iteration. We also get welcome returns from Galadriel, Elrond, Frodo and old Bilbo but we also get an awesome return in the form Andy Serkis – or more appropriately Gollum.
The best part of the movie is the return of Gollum – hands down. As soon as he jumps on the screen and finagles his way into the scenery, you cannot take your eyes off of him. For being such a despondent, horrific looking fellow, you cannot deviate your attention off of him and all the credit goes to Andy Serkis. He is amazing in his role and deserves any nomination possible that might allude him because he’s thought of as a motion capture specialist instead of an actor, despite the gross injustice that tag brings him. He is the most lively character on the screen as the cycle of emotions are projected onto the screen. His standoff with Bilbo will imprint onto your mind well after leaving the theater. It is an excellent set piece and is a great stage setter for the stories to come.
Peter Jackson comes back to us back to the ages of elves, dwarves and hobbits and doesn’t miss a beat. He controls the camera and mood and is simply at home with his material. He controls the story and keeps it consistent as possible and suffers very few missteps other than pacing but the 2 hours and 45 minutes still moves at a brisk pace and barely gives you time to breathe. The HFR 48fps is definitely the way to see it and it works for this movie. Any other movie and it would be an unmitigated disaster but his use of sight and sound makes this an event to see. It may not be the best thing I have seen this year but it is definitely worth the experience. This movie promises to bring you on an adventure that you will never forget and want to revisit over and over again.