Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy
Rating: PG-13, for considerable violence, action and relentless dramatic intensity
A decade after “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and its stunning — but definitely well-deserved — 11 Academy Awards, director Peter Jackson has lost none of his ability to amaze and delight.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is breathtaking in every sense of the word: a glorious return to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with its heroic little folk, their unlikely and often quarrelsome allies, and a host of dire and deadly creatures, each more ghastly than the last.
All this said, questions have been raised.
Turning “Lord of the Rings” into three expansive films made sense: one for each book. But “The Hobbit” is a single, much slimmer volume, with a kid-friendly story that (by design) lacks the narrative complexity of Tolkien’s heftier trilogy. Pundits have wondered whether the decision to turn this saga into a nine-hour experience might be more than a little self-indulgent.
Ah, but Jackson and his co-scripters — veteran Middle Earth colleagues Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with newcomer Guillermo del Toro, a masterful fantasist in his own right — had a secret weapon. We tend to forget that Tolkien concluded his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with 125 pages of notes and appendices that also added considerable back-story to “The Hobbit”: more than enough to justify this unexpectedly ambitious big-screen adaptation.
We’re granted the charm of familiar faces as Jackson opens his film in the “present,” with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) penning his memoirs, as a curious Frodo (Elijah Wood) hovers in the background. Following this hiccup of a prologue, we zoom 60 years into the past, as a much younger Bilbo (now Martin Freeman) is surprised one day by the arrival of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a wizard of great repute and rather elliptical manner.
Bilbo knows Gandalf only as a prestidigitator who concocts fireworks shows for this peaceful market town of Hobbiton, in the verdant realm known as the Shire. But Gandalf has more ambitious matters in mind at the moment, not that he deigns to share any pertinent details; poor Bilbo’s cozy home of Bag End simply gets invaded, that evening, by a motley collection of 12 boisterous — and hungry — dwarves.
They’re soon joined by Gandalf and a 13th dwarf, the latter with a regal bearing wholly unlike his unrestrained comrades. This is the Dwarf Lord Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who has undertaken the impossible task of journeying into the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, in order to take back Erebor, the lost kingdom and homeland of his tribe.
As we learn during the sort of epic flashback that also opened the first “Lord of the Rings” film, this dwarf citadel was invaded years ago by the great dragon Smaug, which — so it is believed — nests within the mountain fortress to this day.
To make matters worse, the displaced dwarves subsequently were attacked by hordes of orcs led by the powerful Azog, who slew the dwarf king Thrór. Thorin, sole remaining heir to the throne, has hoped to rally an army; he has managed only this motley collection of misfits and aged warriors.
But Gandalf finds merit in this unlikely crew. He also believes that Bilbo has a key role to play, because dragons aren’t familiar with hobbits, who are known for their stealth. Bilbo, Gandalf believes, might be able to sneak into Erebor right under Smaug’s unsuspecting nose.
Not that Bilbo has any interest in a quest that requires he sign a contract warning against death by incineration.
Freeman quickly establishes his deft comic timing in these early scenes, as the quiet and fastidious Bilbo reels from one rough-hewn dwarf to the next. Freeman will be recognized most recently as the Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes in the marvelous UK series “Sherlock”; others may recall his droll turn as one-half of the naked duo in 2003’s “Love Actually.”
You may be surprised, however, by the depth of character that Freeman brings to Bilbo. The reluctant hobbit must, by turns, be frightened, prideful, resourceful, dignified, gentle and — with his back to the wall — foolishly, improbably brave. We had a wealth of characters with whom to identify in “The Lord of the Rings,” but Freeman bears the weight of our emotional involvement here. He does so with grace and sensitivity.
Armitage also holds considerable focus as the resolute Thorin, whose determination is matched, at times, by bitter despair. If Freeman’s Bilbo is this film’s heart, then Armitage is its tortured soul: a warrior subject to bleak anguish over the necessity of his mission — in order to save his people, and reclaim their homeland — and cursed with the intelligence to recognize that the quest is hopeless.
The rest of the dwarves, alas, are little more than their names and one-dimensional character tics. (One hopes they become more individualized as this three-part saga progresses.) Balin (Ken Stott) is the wise and aged diplomat; Bombur (Stephen Hunter) is the fat one forever in search of the next meal; Fili and Kili (Ean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner) are the impetuous youngsters who behave very much like the hobbits Merry and Pippin in “Lord of the Rings,” and serve the same comic-relief purpose.
The rest, I must confess, mostly eluded me … although, taken as a company, they’re certainly a gregarious, battle-worthy and highly enjoyable bunch.
It must be noted, however, that this film’s first chapter takes a long time to crank past the necessary introductions; the interlude in Bilbo’s home almost wears out its welcome, particularly when the dwarves — looking as though they’ve wandered in from a live-action Disney adaptation of “Snow White” — sing not just one, but two songs to boost their spirits.
Trust me, though; you’ll overlook such impatience once the quest begins. What follows next involves all manner of nasty beasties, from trolls and goblins to the aforementioned orcs. Other familiar faces pop up, notably the Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the magisterial Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee), a fellow wizard not yet seduced by the dark side that will influence events to come.
The intensity builds as we approach the third act, which kicks off as our heroes get sucked into an astonishing battle between massive Storm Giants, followed by a descent into the hellish realm of the hulking Goblin King (Barry Humphries). What follows … well, let’s just say that my use of the word breathless, at the top of this review, is quite apt.
You can’t help but marvel at cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s long, swooping shots into the thick of an underground melee: jaw-dropping visual pizzazz that he perfected in all three “Lord of the Rings” films, and which looks even more stunning here.
And, yes, this is where, finally, Bilbo encounters the pale, gaunt and horrifying creature known as Gollum (Andy Serkis), in a sequence that is, by turns, scary, creepy and darkly funny. Serkis has labored far too long in the shadows of the technology that grants Gollum his physical form, with the actor unrecognized for the emotional heft he brings to this role. Let the clarion call echo anew: Serkis deserves an Academy Award nomination, because his Gollum has become one of fantasy’s most fascinating and enduring characters.
All of which brings me not only to Jackson and Lesnie’s magnificent use of 3D cinematography — every bit as phenomenal as what Cameron wrought with “Avatar” — but also the ground-breaking introduction (for mainstream viewers) of “high frame rate 3D.” Since the days of the silents, films have been shot at 24 frames per second. Faster frame rates long have been recognized for their sense of heightened reality, but until now the technique was relegated to specialty shorts at (for example) World Expos.
Jackson and Lesnie shot this film at 48 frames per second, and the result is both startling and (at times) a bit off-putting. At its best, the result is akin to actually being present in the action, as if you might be watching events through a window, rather than on a screen. At other times, though, there’s a distinct, “Masterpiece Theater”-ish, shot-on-video look to some scenes, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. As with video, the lighting can appear harsh, which works against the suspension of disbelief that we’ve willingly granted (particularly when weird creatures are involved).
Longtime Middle Earth fans will make a point of seeing this film in its many formats: HFR3D, conventional 3D, standard 2D and IMAX. I suspect opinions will vary, as to which is superior; we’ve all grown accustomed to the artistic “softness” of long-established 24fps cinematography. What Jackson and Lesnie have wrought is, at times, almost too vivid.
That said, the learning curve is pretty quick: I found the enhanced imagery distracting initially, but this ceased to be a problem after an hour or so. By then, I was much too involved with the story, and with the evolution of Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins as a reluctant hero.
I well remember the torture, a decade back, of waiting for each successive chapter of “Lord of the Rings.” Jackson has made such sweet agony delicious all over again.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com