Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It's been nearly a decade since filmmaker Peter Jackson last ventured into Middle Earth, and since the concluding of his billion dollar epic franchise The Lord of the Rings, and the bounty of Academy Awards earned for its conclusion, The Return of the King (which won eleven- every category in which it was up for), the cinematic universe for the famously rotund (now svelte) Kiwi has been decidedly earthbound.  Following the grand Tolkien trilogy with King Kong (2005), which many accused of being heavily bloated and self serious, one with a running time that was nearly twice as that of the original film, and further so with his adaptation of The Lovely Bones (2009), there was a aura of perhaps the director, who began his career his low budget horror and the enchantingly morbid Heavenly Creatures had lost his touch.  For The Lord of the Rings was a majestic and mighty piece of entertainment, presented with such lush visuals that it felt like a child running loose in a candy store of adventure and possibility, high on the adrenaline of movie magic.  The great feat of his three films were that they could appeal, not just to the Tolkien fan club, or the cinephile who could rejoice movie-making wizardry, but nearly everyone who could embrace high order cinema of fun and splendor.  Could something of the like ever be replicated, and even so, should it?

Jackson tries to answer that prickly question with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the prequel chapter to The Lord of the Rings' dense and mythic trilogy.  While Lord of the Rings handles a rich and ever expansive universe, The Hobbit, as a source, is a fairly light one with a straight-forward tale told nearly with the swiftness of a prologue of what Tolkien would conjure.  The film has made more than a few headlines in the fan boy culture in the realm of the controversial.  First, with the decision of expanding The Hobbit into three parts-- a tall order considering the volume of the text itself.  Second, with the divisive visual unveiling of The Hobbit's novelty in being presented in 48 frames per second, double that what movies are typically presented in meaning in laments terms that the audience is getting twice the information per frame, which has presented issues in it's own right from early reports of nausea, to the less than thrilling spectacle view of Middle Earth.  The richest pre-screening caveat may have been when Jackson usurped the directorial reins from Guillermo Del Toro (who still retains a screenplay credit), returning to the franchise helm that made him king.

To be fair, Jackson has retained the sheen and glow of Middle Earth, recapturing the magnitude and awe-inspiring visual effects that made The Lord of the Rings the David Lean gold standard in fantasy storytelling.  The beauty and wonder and the pure wizardry of the magicians of Weta Digital Effects remains firmly intact.  The problem lies, as most of them do, with the difficulties and rigors of the business of sequels and prequels to past marvels.  The relevancy and unexpected charm seems missing, and Jackson incorporates a more business-minded method to the very expected journey of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  What's more the film, clocking in at nearly three hour, has the reek and feel of over-bloated indulgence versus the brisk, nearly click pace set by the similarly timed first ventures of the franchise.  And while The Lord of the Rings set a lofty mantle for the wow-inspiring, jaw-dropping set pieces when it first was unveiled, there's a sad thought of been there-done that, that prevents the magic from every really taking flight.

Set sixty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit introduces us to a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a tightly wound ninny of a hobbit who enjoys simple Shire-time solitude, that is until Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the impish wizard, sparks and awakens a sense of adventure and quest opportunity for the nervous little man.  The Hobbit opens with a prologue, and continues to prologuize for quite some time.  Firstly as general backstory to the quest that awakes, and secondly as way to reintroduce the older Bilbo, played once again by Ian Holm, as he begins to tell our tale proper.  One of the best bits of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey play up the nostalgia factor as familiar faces from the past pop by to drop off blessings.  Elvish royalty Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the ethereal Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) are always welcome back.  As ia McKellen, who serves as our delectable Middle Earth tour guide, charting the great English tradition of elegantly vamping franchise material.  He serves as The Hobbit's most invaluable player.  The quest offered to young, dallying Bilbo is a part of a mission to join a dwarf army to reclaim their once prosperous land that was robbed of them.  It's easy enough to follow, and certainly not required in a three-film by three-hour course plan.  But there's obvious padding along the way that the filmmakers (as well as the nervy studio execs in search of harvesting ever more dollars) will mask for story.  Nearly a hour encompasses that of a dwarf party which consists of not one, but two musical numbers, for instance.

Even as the quest in underway, our adventurers are swept in battle after battle with orcs, trolls, goblins and mountainy shape shifters-- there's a current that while the tale is lined with a visual finesse and refinement, there's little by way of story.  The dwarfs themselves are fairly indistinguishable, save for the tragic once-king, Thorin (Richard Armitrage), that that great sense of character so readily defined in The Lord of the Rings is taken a back seat to spectacle; Freeman, however, is a charmingly befuddled presence as the reluctant hero.

Throughout the nearly three hours of the first chapter, there's startlingly little story to cling to, except for one bravura sequence where Jackson the storyteller comes back and Jackson, the accountant, retires.  It's one that's heavily steeped, further more, into the lure and nostalgia of the first set of films, but a triumphant aside that sharpens the divide of art versus commerce.  A trapped Bilbo encounters Gollum (once again majestically and eerily played with a potent mixture of state of arts craftsmanship and pathos-inspired mania by Andy Serkis), and consists mainly of clever wordplay and delightful exchanges as the deranged and demented hobbit, still in awe and under the scope of the ring that will prove more compromising in later chapters.  It's the easiest and most unexpected portion of The Hobbit to grab onto, and a late in the day deal breaker for the road that lies ahead.

Otherwise, we, as expected audience members must shake ourselves from a film, one that's certainly in no ways bad, or bad for us, with the slight discomfort from jetting around our movie theater seat after three hours, with the unsettling reaction that, honestly, nothing really happened.  B-

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