“Hobbit”: No “Rings” — Yet

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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(Background l-r) GRAHAM McTAVISH as Dwalin, WILLIAM KIRCHER as Bifur, RICHARD ARMITAGE as Thorin Oakenshield, KEN STOTT as Balin, JAMES NESBITT as Bofur, and MARTIN FREEMAN (far right) as Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.

I still remember the exhilaration I felt when seeing the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, that awareness of being in the presence of real, big-time moviemaking, full of action and adventure and myth, yet aware of the importance of character and quiet moments before the next grand, landscape-filling spectacle.

Jackson, of course, followed that effort with two more Rings movies, all based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien, with the last film winning an extraordinary 11 Oscars. And now Jackson has turned to Tolkien again, but with a result that is for the time being less inspired than Jackson’s earlier films.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of three films based on Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, which covers events 60 years before the Rings novels. (The second Hobbit film is set for December 2013, the third for July 2014.) At times, it has the sweep and power of the Rings films, and fans of the earlier movies should delight in seeing some characters from the earlier movies, notably Gollum (Andy Serkis). Jackson has embraced both 3D and HFR (high frame rate) to make some showings of the movie even more impressive technologically.

But he is also trying to carve three movies — and a first that runs 2 hours, 49 minutes — out of a relatively small amount of material, especially compared to the three books that inspired the earlier movies. So there are times when Unexpected Journey drags, gets too caught up in extended battle sequences and just plain loves its pictures too much. At times, it seems as if Jackson studied epics like Lawrence of Arabia too closely, since he cannot resist an opportunity to show his small figures crossing vast, if picturesque, expanses. The script, which makes some significant modifications of Tolkien’s narrative, also varies in tone, at times trying to appeal to silliness-loving children in the audience, at others intent on the grisly, monstrous and terrifying.

That said, in the HFR 3D version I saw, the movie at times lived up to expectations. Some of the action sequences are splendid in their use of 3D, as is an early bit that finds a band of dwarves tossing plates to each other with marvelous skill and rapidity.

And Martin Freeman (Love Actually, TV’s Sherlock) makes a fine Bilbo Baggins, a touch stuffy, often puzzled but perfectly convincing when heroism becomes necessary.

Ian Holm played the older Bilbo in Jackson’s Rings movies, and appears here to set up the telling of the Hobbit story before Freeman takes over. There is much story to tell, too, beginning with the fall of Erebor, a dwarf kingdom taken over by the dragon Smaug, which wanted the gold the dwarves had accumulated. Bilbo enters the saga when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) enlists the reluctant hobbit as the burglar for a 13-dwarf quest to take back Erebor. Although the dwarves, and especially their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), see no usable skills in Bilbo, Gandalf insists that Bilbo has value, and the hobbit himself is drawn into adventure.

The adventure, then, includes violent encounters with trolls, orcs, goblins and wolf-like wargs, more peaceful meetings with elves, and a growing sense that something terrible is sweeping through the land. Then there is Gollum, engaging Bilbo in a deadly game of riddles — and, of course, a ring.

The movie ends not with the resolution of a major plot element — not with two movies to go — but with the defining of one character and of that character’s relationship with others. It is to Jackson’s credit that he chose to end on that note, although there were several other, earlier places when he might just as well have stopped this movie. It may be that Jackson is saving his best stuff for the later films — only this one is full of cinematic tricks meant to dazzle the audience now.

One of those tricks is HFR, which is available locally only with some 3D showings at Cinemark Valley View and Tinseltown USA in Jackson Township. If you opt for that version, it may take a mental adjustment. The images are not what is customarily thought of as cinematic, but are more like what you would see on TV when watching a top-shelf high-definition version. And it does not overcome the storytelling flaws.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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