“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” Movie Review

    Director Peter Jackson makes a triumphant return to Middle Earth with the first film in  what will be a new trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”.  When you think about it, returning to this material was a daunting task and nothing short of a nearly insurmountable challenge.  After completing what could arguably be considered the greatest trilogy of book to film adaptations with “The Lord of the Rings”, bringing to life the prequel to those films brings a massive amount of expectation.  Jackson probably knew he would be opening himself up to the type of criticism given George Lucas when he released the highly anticipated “Star Wars Episode 1”.  It’s no surprise “The Hobbit” hasn’t risen to the heights of critical acclaim that “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy did, yet the film still broke the all time December record for opening weekend box office.  This means the fans have spoken and I’m here to tell you, if you’re a fan than you won’t be disappointed.  “The Hobbit” is a grand spectacle and is one of the best films of the year.

     Jackson begins the film with a nifty monologue by Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) at the older age he was in “The Lord of the Rings”.  As he begins to write about the events that will unfold in this film, Frodo (Elijah Wood) arrives and asks what he’s doing.  Frodo then exits, telling Bilbo he’s heading into the forrest to greet Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as he arrives for the party later that night.  That is where “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” began and we are then told the time is 65 years earlier when Bilbo’s adventure he is writing about began.  If you’ve read the book, than you will quickly realize Jackson makes every attempt to remain faithful with very few liberties. 

     Without actually being shown, a nefarious dragon named Smaug attacks the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, leaving the Dwarfs without a home.  Bilbo (now played by Martin Freeman) meets Gandalf for the first time, who introduces him to a band of 13 Dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), a legendary Dwarf leader.  After much convincing, Bilbo joins them in their quest to return to Erebor and reclaim their kingdom and treasure.  Bilbo’s part is that of a “burglar” which is needed in the plan to defeat Smaug.  The adventure leads the group east toward their homeland and on the way, as you can imagine, they run into a number of obstacles.  Giant trolls, goblins, elves, and even giant mountains that come alive and battle each other are just a sample of what Bilbo, Gandolf, and the Dwarves must face.  Jackson’s digital effects artists have again out done themselves with sweeping panoramic visuals of the action from a far, giving the audience a detailed view of what is happening around the group.

     Much has been made of the film’s running time and the possibility Jackson was a bit too indulgent in some scenes.  I’m convinced today’s A.D.D. society wouldn’t last five minutes watching “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Rear Window”, with those films containing less than one minute of actual payoff.  What those films have in common with “The Hobbit” is the value they hold in developing characters and all great directors ensure this occurs.  Jackson does spend some quality time introducing us to the 13 Dwarves and reacquainting us with Bilbo and Gandalf, which is a necessity if we are to care about them when they are in peril later.  The many pages in books does this really well, but for some reason people balk when it’s done on screen.  If Jackson and his screenwriters don’t develop the characters, than the film would’ve been reduced to a bunch of nameless, faceless characters attempting to accomplish something we can’t relate to. 

     Stealing the show again is the outstanding motion capture performance by Andy Serkis and his Gollum character.  While lost from the group in goblin tunnels, Bilbo meets Gollum for the first time and engages in a conversation full of riddles and intrigue.  It is here where Bilbo comes in possession of Gollum’s ring, known of course as his “precious” and the stage is set for “The Lord of the Rings” films.  Gollum’s scene runs for about 15 minutes, yet it is clearly the most powerful and influential portion of the film, especially because we know what the events that take place in this scene cause later.  Though the power of the ring is only hinted at, Gollum’s reaction when he realizes he has lost the ring says all we need to know.  I think it’s time either the Academy begins to recognize actors like Serkis in a motion capture performance category or they begin considering them in the actual acting categories.  It really says something when a computer generated character can not only be brought to realistic life, but also leaves an impression more lasting than that of the actual actors on screen.

     I think it will be impossible for Peter Jackson to actually top his “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but what he has done with “The Hobbit” really speaks of his immense talent, particularly with literary adaptation.  He has a unique ability to stay faithful to the source material, thus pleasing the fans, but he also appeals to a mass audience, bringing these larger than life characters to the screen.  If there’s any downside to all of this, it’s that we now have to wait until next December for the continued adventures of Bilbo and company.  Fortunately, Jackson’s first chapter will require plenty of viewings on Blu ray in order to dissect the details in every glorious scene.  I figure that will keep me occupied over the next 12 months.  GRADE: A