Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Theatrical Review

Release Date: December 14, 2012

Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a journey well worth taking.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 15 Century City
Time: 12:15 pm December 15, 2012   
Projector Type: Digital 3D in HFR
Film Rating: PG-13   
Film Runtime: 2 hr 46 min
Studio: Warner Bros.

Loves: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson 
Likes: Fantasy settings, rich and detailed cinematic worlds
Neutral: Nothing
Hates: Having to wait an entire year for the next one 
Disclaimer: I have never read any of J.R.R. Tolkein's novels.


As many may already know (or perhaps not due to a severe lack of advertising or awareness on Warner Brothers part), "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the first feature length film to be released in HFR or High Frame Rate format. This is not going to be a technical review of it but more of how it worked in conjunction with the film itself. As many other reviewers and critics have said numerous times now, it takes a little time to adjust to the smoothness and aesthetics of HFR. Some have reported 20 to 30 minutes while others have said upwards of an hour, but regardless there does seem to be an adjustment period needed to fully comprehend it.

The look of HFR and how it changes the quality of the film print is jarring to someone weened on films shot in 24 frames a second all their life and too suddenly be thrust into a 48 frames per second experience is unusual to say the least. But once that hurdle of becoming in tune with it is over, the true magic of this soon to be widely adopted format comes into view. The world of Middle Earth looks absolutely stunning in HFR, as do many of its effects driven sequences. Trade offs such as uneven (and even very bad) green screen work or how it often times feels as though you are watching a stage play are worth it. Sure, the sets, costumes and make up looks fake at first, but once properly adjusted it soon becomes a non-issue.

It is impossible to say how you or anyone else will react to it since it is an extremely subjective topic. It is quite literally the same as telling someone they will like this piece of food simply because you like it, but there is no way to really tell until they try it themselves. This isn't like a new audio format where you get more speakers and the sound remains largerly unchanged or 3D images where the picture is the same but closer to your face, this is a brand new way to actually watch movies and it is going to take some time to get used to. This reviewer cannot wait to watch another film in HFR simply to see what it will look like in someone else's hands and hopefully in a more contemporary setting. If nothing else, you should seek the film out in HFR because it is something that should be experienced before passing judgement and it is the way Peter Jackson intended his film to be viewed in the first place.

To wrap this up, go see "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in HFR, if for no other reason than to say you have and can join in on the conversation when you start to hear the heated arguments over its many successes and its few failures.

After the mighty dragon Smaug had run the dwarves from their mighty kingdom Eremor deep within the Lonely Mountain and claiming their many riches for itself, the king of the dwarves led his people to safety where they would eventually become nomads moving from place to place in search of a new homeland. Many years later, the dwarve prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of 12 dwarven warriors come together with the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a very unlikely 14th companion in the timid shire-born hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to go reclaim Eremor from the dragon and restore the dwarves to their former glory.

Serving as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy ("Fellowship of the Ring", "The Two Towers" and "Return of the King"), director Peter Jackson reluctantly steps back into the directors chair to begin yet another trilogy taking place in Middle Earth (Jackson was originally going to serve in a supporting role as Guillermo Del Toro was originally set to direct before bowing out a year before principal photography was to begin). Any fan of the film series should know automatically what to expect from another visit to J.R.R. Tolkien's wonderous world filled with all sorts of fantastical delights and those expectations are met perfectly. As if more proof were needed, Peter Jackson proves once again that he was born to bring these stories to the big screen with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", a fantastic beginning to what should hopefully be yet another amazing journey through Middle Earth.

Waiting ten years to bring the first book, but second film trilogy, to life was a good idea on the part of Mr. Jackson. It not only gave him some much needed rest from the franchise, but it allowed the public in general to fully soak in those first three films before plunging back into Middle Earth head first. It also allowed technology to make some large leaps and bounds for him to be able to trump his already technically flawless previous trilogy. This feels like the right time and place for this new series of films and Jackson has seized the opportunity to once again capture the hearts and minds of fantasy lovers everywhere.

Immediately after the astounding introductory prologue to this new (or old?) threat that has befallen the lands, fans will instantly feel right at home with Bilbo and Frodo back amongst the lush hillsides of the Shire (with both Ian Holm and Elijah Wood gracefully and briefly reprising their roles from the original trilogy). Things start off rather fast as we are very quickly introduced to the lot of dwarves that Bilbo will be accompanying on his unexpected journey and there isn't a dull one in the bunch. Some could argue (and be right in the process) that we never truly get to know each and every one of them by the time the film is over (we only ever get any real time with a handful of them), but they still exude a lot of charm and make their presence known in a multitude of fun ways (they are good singers as well).

Along with the many familiar faces of Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, Ian McKellen as Gandalf and a surprising visit by Christopher Lee as Saruman, there is cadre of new actors who add to the already rich assortment of acting talent that makes up the whole of the cinematic universe of Middle Earth. There are far too many to go into detail about, but the range of fresh faces for the aforementioned dwarves each adds a unique distinctness to their characters that help make their brief moments stand out more than they probably would otherwise. The newly introduced wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is also a delight (once you get past the constant amount of bird poo running down the side of his face that is). By far though, the scene stealing Andy Serkis as Gollum in a very brief but integral appearance is still the best of the bunch even if he did overstay his welcome a bit, which is saying a lot considering all the talent spread throughout the near three hour film.

There are only three members of this party however that are the main focus and they are Gandalf the Grey, Prince Thorin and of course Bilbo. Gandalf, while present through the majority of the previous films, never felt like he was actually part of the group. He always felt strangely disconnected from the group and never really clicked the same way he does here with the dwarves or even the hobbits for that matter. He is certainly a more active participant this time around as well and gets to use a bit more magic than he ever did before. Fans of the wizard will ultimately be pleased with the amount of screen time allotted him and his many interactions with the dwarves as well as some other familiar faces that pop up along their journey.

The two stand outs of course are Bilbo and Thorin, both of whom make more than appropriate lead characters for the adventure at hand. They both feel as though they have something to prove to themselves and those around them. Thorin is the last heir to the throne of Eremor and an extremely proud leader, he has seen his grandfather slain by monstrous Orc and his father driven mad and forced into the wild where he was never heard from again. Only he remains to lead his people and he does so with a strong sword, iron will and enough confidence in himself and his fellow dwarves to fill a mountain. Anyone worried that there would be a lack of a sufficient heroic figure with Aragorn out of the picture should breath easy for Thorin is a more than capable new leader.

Bilbo on the other hand is the more fragile and unsuspecting part of the equation. With no real skills with a sword or any sort of survival skills at all, he quickly becomes our timid conduit into this epic adventure. While Frodo made for a very endearing and sympathetic hero in the first trilogy, Biblo comes off as a much more hands on participant in the action. He questions his worth all throughout the film, often to the point of wanting to return to the safety and quaintness of the Shire, but his need to prove to himself and push forward through the many adversities he faces, even though he has no stake in the dwarves quest , helps shape him into a hero of circumstance as opposed to Thorin who is a hero by way of his birthrite, but one that just so happens to be 4 feet tall and doesn't wear shoes. That all combines to make Bilbo an even more engaging figure to follow than Frodo ever was, but that is also due to the nature of his journey which isn't nearly as dire.

Which is a great lead into the overall tone of the film, which isn't too far off from that of the previous films but there is a slightly lighter edge to the proceedings this time around. That's not to say it is all of a sudden child's fare material because it most certainly is not. There are still plenty of frightful images and intense battles that take place, but the adventure doesn't have that lingering doom hovering over it that the previous films did. The lands are still full of life and everyone seems to be in a much cheerier mood, which makes sense given the fact that they are heading off to reclaim their homeland instead of into certain doom. Only when evil forces come into the picture does it ever teeter back over to the darker corners of Middle Earth. "An Unexpected Journey" just has a better overall balance than the other films that helps it stand apart while also remaining firmly attached to that same world.

You may have also heard that this is a long movie, of which apparently many critics seem to be taking issue with. Well, not the length so much as the fact that during those three hours, nothing of any real significance occurs. To clarify, nothing really happens in relation to the ultimate goal of their journey, but there is still plenty that our band of dwarves encounter and nearly all of it is unlike anything you have ever seen before. Without a doubt the places Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and the others visit put the other trilogy to shame, and that is saying a lot. If you liked that all too brief visit to the mines of Moria and Gandalf's subsequent face off with the mighty Balrog or Frodo and Sam's run in with Shelob, then you are in for a treat here.

If it's not trolls who have a hunger for hobbit meat or a necromancer who is conjuring up the dead, then it is stone giants who use mountains as their battle ground or an entire Goblin kingdom that will have you entranced the whole way through this richly detailed world. That's not even including the dragon, which is only really hinted at in the opening prologue. Middle Earth has never felt more alive than it does here and any fans of the films (or the books) will find their extended trip through Tolkein's creation to be all too brief and wander why it wasn't any longer. But it does end eventually and thankfully unlike the first trilogy, Peter Jackson seems to have figured out how to create a suitable cliffhanger to end these epic chapters in a greater story. Instead of ending the journey with characters just walking off into the distance until the credits begin to roll (which he did for both Fellowship and Two Towers), we get a fantastically enticing glimpse at what awaits our band of heroes at their journey's end.

It must be said that although these films are adaptations of Tolkein's beloved stories, these are Peter Jackson's films through and through and his vision of those stories for better or worse. If you don't care for his editing or directorial decisions (or what he decides to leave out or include), chances are you this won't change your mind. Nothing has really changed on that level, his skill as a filmmaker has increased exponentially and his vision of Middle Earth has never looked better, due in part to some impressive visual effects and inventive creature designs such as the Goblin King (most likely left over from Del Toro's early involvement with the project), but there are no real discernable differences beyond technical advances. Which is for the better in the long run as all the films will share a similar look and feel that will help them combine into a very satisfying whole once this new trilogy is completed.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a marvelous excursion into a fantasical world ripe with all sorts of imaginative wonders to behold. Anyone taking issue with the length, lack of any sort of resolution to the greater story or what was left out from the books will likely never appreciate these films for what they are, which is a true shame. Never before have we had such an amazingly well crafted fantasy series as this and the more of it we get then the luckier we are. This is the perfect beginning to what will hopefully turn into yet another timeless trilogy of films that no one should miss out on and it is certainly one of the best films released this year.





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