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There And There And There And Back Again

December 21st, 2012

Yes, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is too damned long. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s made not by the Peter Jackson who ruthlessly and wisely cut Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire from The Lord of the Rings, but by the Peter Jackson who made his King Kong remake 83 minutes longer than the original. To this Mr. Jackson, more is more.

Yet, as someone who owns–and prefers–the extended editions of the three Rings films, I have no true cause for complaint. I like spending time in Middle Earth. I like seeing the “off-screen” parts of the story. So, if Jackson’s revised plan to split The Hobbit into three movies means that we’re seeing the equivalent of extended editions in the theater rather than waiting for the DVD release, so be it.

That’s not to say that An Unexpected Journey isn’t excessive in other ways as well. At times it lapses into video game mode, with on-screen antics resembling an action “platformer.” This isn’t new: even The Fellowship of the Ring had that damned swaying staircase. But both the stone giant and Goblin Town sequences in The Hobbit go far beyond the believable. (The collapsing Goblin Town platform is both ridiculous and oh-so-fake.)

It shares another trait with The Fellowship of the Ring in that it inserts a villain to provide a more personal threat. (A “mini-boss,” in video game terms.) While Fellowship’s Uruk-Hai captain Lurtz was wholly invented, Journey‘s  Azog the Defiler is at least a Tolkien character, albeit one who was supposed to have been long dead. While I don’t know that he’s entirely necessary, I don’t think he significantly detracts from the story. (Besides, “Azog the Defiler” is a pretty rockin’ name.)

One way in which it differs from Fellowship is that it goes out of its way to insert Tom Bombadil. Okay, he’s actually Radagast the Brown, an off-screen character from Tolkien’s novels, but like Bombadil he’s a quirky nature lover. It’s fun to see former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy up on the big screen.* Thankfully, he does not play the spoons.

Martin Freeman is simply terrific as the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins. I wasn’t sure what to make of the casting at first, but he nails the fussy Englishman aspect of the character. He’s especially good playing off Andy Serkis as Gollum in the dead-perfect “riddle game” sequence.

The visuals are for the most part absolutely gobsmacking. I audibly said “wow” at least twice.** The 3-D is really good too, aside from a few early sweeping pans that my eyes were unable to process.

I cannot comment on the controversial 48-frames-per-second version, as I would’ve had to trek to either Chicago or Indianapolis to sample it. And, given what I’ve heard from people who seem like they’d be inclined to like that sort of technological advance, it sounds as if it’s better avoided.

Perhaps I would’ve been less inclined to enjoy An Unexpected Journey if my expectations hadn’t been tempered by the needlessly harsh reviews, but I found it a great deal of fun.

It’s not Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it’s Peter Jackson’s. I’m okay with that. People bitched when the early Harry Potter films hewed too closely to the books rather than offering freer adaptations. Jackson’s script even remarks on how tales evolve in the telling. And Tolkien himself wrote of the “Cauldron of Stories” that authors draw from for their own works. (Though, given what he had to say about the first guy who attempted to write a Lord of the Rings screenplay, I’m not sure he’d agree with my take.)

* This movie is geek heaven in that it features not only a former Doctor, but also Magneto, Arthur Dent, Ash (from Alien), Agent Smith and Dracula (or Count Dooku if you’re too young to remember Hammer horror films).

**Both times for establishing shots of fantasy environments, specifically the halls of Erebor and the vast catacomb of Goblin Town.


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