Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Dir. Peter Jackson

3 out of 5

It was easy to forget that between the inter-species politics, breathtaking scenery, and pathological obsession with detail, the Lord of the Rings movies were remarkably down-the-middle action flicks.  Downplaying the exhaustive lineages and clannish concerns of fairy tale creatures, Peter Jackson built a cinematic juggernaut on the oldest of movie business principles: show, don't tell.  There was plenty of backstory there if you were interested, but Jackson perfectly captured a natural, novelistic flow onscreen that the stopping points between each film in the trilogy almost seemed arbitrary.  

That last sensation is again present in a new film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings predecessor The Hobbit, but not in an altogether positive way.  The first of these films, An Unexpected Journey, admirably sets the table for an epic dinner party that's several guests short.  The humble Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) lives a idyllic life among his fellow hobbits until the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) recruits him for an adventure.  A daring band of dwarves intends to reclaim their ancestral home from Smaug, the greedy, genocidal dragon who scattered their community across Middle-earth in a vast diaspora.  Bilbo is convinced to sign on as the expedition's "burglar" under the theory that hobbits, being exceedingly diminutive and unassuming creatures, are able to skirt danger better than anyone else.  Fighting his way past trolls, goblins, and orcs, Bilbo must also win the trust of the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), an exiled prince already worried about the prowess of the motley cohort he's cobbled together.

Whereas the fussy, fraidy-cat hobbits were often the subjects of the least-compelling portions of the Rings trilogy, Freeman's Bilbo is definitely the strongest element of The Hobbit.  He's wry, witty, resourceful, and almost completely unlike his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), who appears in a largely pointless cameo at the beginning of his uncle's story.  Jackson's ill-advised decision to stretch the standalone novel into another three-film behemoth means that several other familiar faces make awkward guest appearances in clipped, confusing scenes that are pitched exclusively at LOTR superfans.  At least there's plenty of meaty material with the ones who actually appear in the book, such as power-addled crack baby Gollum (Andy Serkis), who shares the movie's best scene with Bilbo as the two parry each other in a game of riddles.

The Hobbit mostly leaves the inescapable impression that we've seen this all before.  And indeed, we have:  Jackson recycles many images and set-ups from his previous journey to Middle-earth (the final shot is a dead-ringer for the one from Fellowship of the Ring).  He stubbornly maintains his focus on cacophonous action sequences and assumes that audiences won't warm up to these new characters unless they're presented as analogues to characters from the Rings trilogy - Armitage is practically a Viggo Mortensen surrogate in a role that's disproportionately emphasized as equal to Freeman's Bilbo.  

The sweeping dictatorial tendencies that were absolutely necessary to produce a multiplex-swallowing phenomenon like The Lord of the Rings do not translate as well to Tolkien's leaner, quirkier, character study.  Instead of changing his style to suit the material, Jackson does the opposite, symbolized in his insistence on shooting the film in a zippy 48 frames per second, double the industry standard.  The resulting images look dazzlingly clear but also frighteningly uncanny and artificial, especially when CGI is superimposed on the beautiful natural landscapes of Jackson's native New Zealand.  Much like its benevolently despotic auteur, An Unexpected Journey believes it knows what the audience wants better than the audience itself, but most of its successes are disappointingly perfunctory or coincidental.

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