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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Release Date: 12-14-2012)

        The subtitle attached to the opening salvo of Director Peter Jackson's new J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy can be understood in a variety of ways. On the surface, it pertains to the epic trek of a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), but the tag also fits the film's lengthy voyage into existence quite nicely. As many Rings devotees already know, it wasn't always supposed to be Jackson returning to the reigns; when the dust settled over a financial throw-down between the world-class film-maker and New Line Studios, it was Guillermo del Toro sitting in the director's chair, with Jackson on board as producer. Years of legal finagling and creative differences led del Toro to eventually drop out altogether, opening the door for the Master of Middle Earth to have his way once more, and did he ever! The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey somehow stays on screen for a gargantuan 169 minutes, despite only representing the initial passages of a relatively modest book, 300 pages or so in most publications. Many (this writer included) have wondered as to the motives behind such an expansion. Simple box office? Legitimate story concerns? Nerds who just can't help themselves? Turns out, it's a little bit of everything.

        In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, a surly fellow previously played by Ian Holm, who sets the events of this film in motion with a welcome cameo. After elder Bilbo details the fall of Erebor, the former home of the Dwarves, since conquered by Smaug the Dragon, his younger, more reluctant incarnation takes over protagonist duties, but not before an old friend gives him a solid nudge in the adventuring direction. Gandalf the Grey, played with even more relish than before by Sir Ian McKellen, invites a troop of those aforementioned bearded cave dwellers to Bilbo's home with a dangerous enticement: come with us to slay the dragon, and riches will be yours. After initial trepidations, the Baggins of Bag End joins the team, setting out on an odyssey beyond his wildest imaginings.

        Before any further examination is leveled, let us quickly get this out of the way: An Unexpected Journey is both far from a failure, and equally removed from reclaiming the glory of its forbearers. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's read the books; The Hobbit is essentially a kids' novel, and here we only have a portion of it, as opposed to witnessing (on three separate occasions, no less) the entirety of a narrative primarily aimed at adults. Jackson, however, neglects to view the material this way; his Hobbit is primarily subsistent of the same epic, straight-faced vibe as his original trilogy, only occasionally undermined by the tone that the source novel actually carries. On one hand, this approach is ill-fitting, and ignorant of the nostalgic bliss that it's parent novel offered in spades. On the other, it's a welcome reintroduction to a beloved universe, now retrofitted with superior technology, and featuring a fair share of crackling set-pieces (the escape from the goblins near the end of the film is one of the most kinetic action sequences in recent memory).

        The allusions to prior glories don't stop there. The Hobbit revisits a surprising number of places, people, and events from the Lord of the Rings saga, especially Fellowship of the Ring, recycling previous triumphs, and behaving as though we've never seen them before. It's all in the name of much-ness, of course: the elongated runtime, the panoramic shots, the state-of-the-art special effects. But why must we have such much-ness? I'm as shocked as anyone at how close An Unexpected Journey comes to validating it's runtime, even taking into account it's two impending sequels, but wouldn't a two-hour frame-work (or six-hour, if you want to look at it upon expansion) give this thing a whole hell of a lot more zip? Jackson's latest feels like Thanksgiving dinner without a refrigerator: Everything on the table is delicious, but you have to take it all down at once, even if you're feeling full. But Jackson does have a fridge (340 more minutes worth of fridge-space to be exact), and one wonders why he wouldn't wrap up some of his more savory concoctions for later, instead of force-feeding his audience into a sort of cinematic food coma. Nearly everything is winsome; Freeman is a terrific centerpiece, Gollum's return is an absolute blast, and the rolling hills of New Zealand are still too lush and beautiful to be believed. It's a good flick, to be sure, but it's a whole lot of less-is-more away from greatness.

Grade: B

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