The adventure follows the journey of title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Sorcerers. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever...Gollum. Here, alone with Gollum, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of ingenuity and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum's "precious" ring that holds unexpected and useful qualities...A simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know.
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Since the FilmFracture review system is focused more so on the individual parts of a film rather than evaluating it as a whole, I must preface this review with my thoughts on the 48-frames-per-secord (or High-Frame-Rate) technology. Though it's hard to adequately nail down the feel of watching a HFR film, there is undoubtedly something "wrong" about said viewing experience. Director Peter Jackson's goal in using the technology was to create a more immersive film, one that audiences will liken to looking through a window rather than staring at a screen. And to some degree that element is present in the film's crisp and clean presentation, and the amount of detail that can be conveyed as a result.
However, the inclusion of HFR is much harder to tolerate. Like 3D, but to a greater degree, HFR is a presentational quality that, if it isn't "working" for you, will wholly diminish the end product. Scenes take on an almost soap opera, PBS quality whereby the entire mise-en-scene seems fake. More than that, though, movements become exaggerated - a byproduct of the film being projected much faster than the eye is used to. Simple actions like a character running looks like it is being played back at double the speed, which in reality it kind of is.
There is one positive to be gleaned from HFR and that's a higher resolution for CG effects and a greater clarity to 3D, which makes a lot of the film's more imaginative creations, like Gollum and the Goblin King, look downright incredible. On the other hand, simple scenes between real actors look decidedly unnatural. It may be a technology that takes getting used to, and perhaps in the future filmmakers might find a nice way to even out the little inconsistencies, but for my first HFR experience I was not convinced of its viability. Seek it out if you must know, but I'd recommend seeing a 24 fps projection first for comparison's sake.
Now that the air has been cleared in regards to HFR I can tell you that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is yet another sprawling epic courtesy of Peter Jackson and Co. It's the first part of a planned three-part trilogy, so it has its inherent set-ups and doesn't resolve all its dangling threads, however its story is one that is mostly engaging from beginning to end. We are treated to a familiar intro that reacquaints the audience with Tolkien's Middle-Earth and before long we're off on an adventure with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), and 13 dwarf warriors lead by Thorin Oakenshield.
Unlike Lord of the Rings, though, The Hobbit's story has more personal roots, especially for the dwarves, and as a result it never feels like the stakes are all that high. Moments of levity are much more common in The Hobbit as well, helping to keep the sections between the journeying enjoyable, and also ingratiating each member of a very large cast to the audience. That isn't to say by Part 1's end that you'll know Oin from Gloin, or Bifur from Bofur, but you will recognize their faces and know their personality traits.
There's no denying that Jackson knows how to tell a tale that gives all of its characters their due, even if at times his films feel bloated. It might not be on the level of King Kong, but The Hobbit does take some time to get going, and has a few lulls as it tries to balance a ton of narrative beats. Some of that excess story comes from scenes that tie into the Lord of the Rings - and that are non-existent in Tolkien's actual book - and others are simply just extended fight or dialogue sequences. Trying to squeeze 2 movies, let alone 3, out of a very short book was obviously going to result in some scenes that feel overlong or unnecessary, but for the most part the film is paced well enough that an engaging action scene is right around the corner. It doesn't have quite the build up, or the dramatic tension, as Fellowship - potentially a byproduct of telling the follow-up's story first - but there is still enough packed into this first chapter that audiences will connect with the characters and be mostly engaged from beginning to end.
All in all, Peter Jackson has crafted yet another exciting first chapter that, while slow to ramp up, adequately introduces fully realized characters, provides exciting action sequences, and leaves audiences chomping at the bit for what lay ahead. And ultimately it's a film that is lighter in tone and therefore more kid friendly than LotR, and in my opinion is slightly less entertaining. That said, I found the experience of returning to Middle Earth to be a delight, even if I'm more excited about what's ahead than looking back.
Even though he has such a small part to play in the grand scheme of things I would be remiss if I didn't mention Andy Serkis as Gollum right up front because he really does steal the show. Bilbo and Gollum's battle of wits (The "Riddles in the Dark" chapter for "Hobbit" fans) is by far the best scene in the film, and is bolstered by some of the most compelling CG facial animations ever seen. The way the folks at WETA digital are able to accurately communicate subtle emotions like surprise, confusion, and uncertainty is simply incredible - and it obviously wouldn't be possible if Andy Serkis hadn't provided that baseline performance. Gollum's true character arc might not come until The Lord of the Rings, but Serkis' single scene in The Hobbit is the character's best.
The actors who really carry the film from The Hobbit's cast, however, are its three main characters: McKellen as Gandalf, Freeman as Bilbo, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. While McKellen and Freeman deliver performances that appropriately fluctuate between comedic and dramatic, and elicit every emotion in between, Armitage serves more as the film's heroic lead, its Aragorn if you will. In fact, a lot of The Hobbit's story focuses on the character Thorin - a quality bolstered by some fairly lengthy flashback sequences - and Armitage does a solid job "carrying" the film in that regard. Unfortunately, he also ends up playing a pseudo-antagonist to Bilbo, a character who sees him as little more than an inconvenience. It's a rather jarring transition for the character, and Armitage fails to make it 100% believable, but thankfully it's not permanent.
As a whole The Hobbit's cast, from the newcomers to the veterans, are solid, and most importantly they breathe life to characters the audience will laugh at, empathize with, and want to see more of. For a cast that must compete with that iconic fellowship of nine, The Hobbit's more than holds its own.
Although the film doesn't have sequences quite as memorable as the Battle of Helms Deep or the Mines of Moria, there is still a wildly imaginative sense of scope and scale at play. Cutting between the various dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf does get a little chaotic in places, and at times the film fails to communicate an adequate sense of space, but fans looking for set pieces in the same vein as Lord of the Rings will find The Hobbit delivers.
From orcs to goblins to trolls, all of the requisite Tolkien races are there - ready to be perfect sword and axe fodder for the band of travelers. Each encounter has its own appeal, and some are more compelling than others, but a scene between three trolls, Bilbo, and the dwarves deserves the most recognition for its ability to blend fluid, well-choreographed action and humor without feeling overly silly. Granted, it's also the set piece that is the least complicated in terms of logistics, a problem that plagues many of the larger sequences, but it gives the audience plenty to be entertained by.
Jackson's penchant for dazzling action is still fully present in The Hobbit, even if in some cases it's required in sequences that are of a smaller scale. However, when Jackson gets the opportunity to take the gloves off, and deliver a bombastic set-piece featuring orcs, wolf-like creatures called wargs, and a looming precipice, he revels in every moment and reminds us why action in the Tolkien universe is unlike anything audiences has ever seen.
Fantasy, Action, Adventure
December 14, 2012