Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

"What's Hobbitses... Precious?!?"
As the loyal readers of The Jordan Movie Blog will certainly know, Peter Jackson's Return of the King is my favorite movie of all-time (narrowly edging out Aliens).  When I heard that Jackson was once again returning to Middle Earth (New Zealand) to film The Hobbit, the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was giddy with anticipation.  Despite Jackson and company's decision to take the book and adapt it into a three-movie arc, I was confident in Jackson's vision and track record.  Having seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on opening day in the groundbreaking 48 frame-per-second format that Jackson intended it to be seen in, I have to say I was happy with my return trip to the Shire.

The Hobbit focuses on Bilbo Baggins (uncle to Frodo, the hero of the LOTR trilogy) and his reluctant quest to join a band of dwarves in an attempt to reclaim a lost fortune from a ferocious dragon.  We see see a glimpse of the dragon towards the end of the movie but all of the dragon CGI goodness seems to be destined for the next film in this series.  The bulk of An Unexpected Journey centers on the dwarf posse as they move from the Shire on their trek to The Lonely Mountain.  Along the way we get several epic battle sequences and a few choice genuinely funny moments including an excellent scene where the group gets captured briefly by a trio of hungry and clueless trolls.

The dwarves are led by Thorin Oakenshield (newcomer Richard Armitage in a commanding performance) and feature a hodge-podge of members that vary in shape, size and facial hair.  British actor Martin Freeman fills the shoes of Ian Holm as Bilbo.  His character is a bit wishy-washy throughout but Freeman does a great job of playing a character who is a bit out of his element throughout.  Returning from LOTR are the welcome faces of Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) and Hugo Weaving (Elrond).  But once again, the acting star of the entire movie is Mr. Andy Serkis who puts his heart and soul into Gollum and gives possibly an even better performance during the amazing 10-minute riddle scene with Bilbo.  The CGI nerds at Weta Digital work so brilliantly with Serkis' motion and voice performance that Gollum commands your attention every instant he's on the screen.  I feel like I could watch Gollum for an hour straight and never get bored.  Unfortunately I don't think we'll see much more of him in the next two films.

What I loved most about this film is how from the opening sequence I felt totally comfortable that Peter Jackson was in charge.  9 years since the last Tolkien adaptation hit theaters, I viewed this first installment of The Hobbit as a homecoming of sorts.  It actually brought me personal joy to see all the returning actors and familiar settings.  Rivendell, The Shire and other locales were painstakingly re-created to look exactly like they did in the previous trilogy.  Add in the fantastic musical scoring of Howard Shore and it really did feel like I was back at home in Middle Earth.  Shore used all the right cues from his LOTR soundtrack to accompany his new composition. When the company visits the elven town of Rivendell, the ethereal elf theme plays.  When we see the One Ring for the first time, the ring theme plays.  And of course we get the fantastic Concerning Hobbits theme during the outdoor scenes in the Shire.  I think the familiarity of the cast, locations and music all helped make the nearly three-hour run time go by much faster than I thought it would.

Now this is not a perfect movie by any means.  Some of the story is slow at times and there really is a lot going on to keep up with everything, but I really enjoyed this experience more than I thought I would based on other critic's reviews.  This was simply a welcome return to the world of Tolkien with expert visuals and CGI by the best production team in Hollywood.  I may be a bit bias but I have to give An Unexpected Journey 4.5 out of 5 JRs.  I'm actually glad that there will be two more Christmas presents from Peter Jackson in the years to come.

NOTE:  I did see this movie in IMAX 3D with a 48 FPS projection.  This is a new technology that Jackson is trying to bring to the big screen.  At double the frames-per-second of the regular 24 FPS projection standard, the movie looked very clear but felt a bit off at times.  At the very beginning it seemed that everything was sped up a bit and some of the clearer scenes look like they belonged in a soap opera.  I don't think 48 FPS is the proper technology for motion pictures.  I feel that the film lost its cinematic edge and the movie didn't really "feel" like a movie.  I think this technology is perfect for documentaries shown in true IMAX theaters.  I know Jackson will try to push 48 FPS with the next two movies, but I think I'll stick with 24 from here on out.

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