MOVIE REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY-- 5 STARS
A virtue that is underused and under-appreciated in the film industry nowadays is patience. For production studios and the powers that be, they impatiently demand and want "the next big thing" yesterday, not tomorrow. They never want the gravy train of hit after hit to stop. Their greed rushes movies, their sequels, and, later, their remakes and reboots into production and into the theaters. Movie audiences in this day and age are no better, thanks to that rushed system. When movies used to play for months at the box office to savor and appreciate, they now flame out in weeks in favor of the new shiny object and a dose of "been there, done that." Surrounding both the studios and the masses is the impatience of marketing hype and expectations. Few movies anymore are really slow-played with the right patience for the proper anticipation and surprise. Trailers give away entire movies and secrets get exposed before a movie even gets out. People demand scoops and leak spoilers daily in this modern world of social media where "15 minutes of fame" has become 15 seconds and instant gratification is the entertainment vice and addiction.
It is in that virtue of patience, that my appreciation springs forth for Peter Jackson's new The Hobbit trilogy. The Oscar-winning director of The Lord of the Rings series is one of very few filmmakers who have afforded the luxury to make movies on their own time. He patiently crafts his art, hones the final product, and seeks to tell his stories his way. While some are calling this new movie trilogy covering just one book instead of three deliberate box office milking, I take it as a guy with a passion who just wants to get everything he can right the first time. Unlike George Lucas and his endless tinkering of his great Star Wars trilogy, Jackson gets it right the first time.
With this first new chapter, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, patience is exactly the virtue required. Yes, we had to wait nearly ten years to return to Middle Earth and have to watch the beginning when we already know the end. Yes, the movie is a bladder-testing two hours and 46 minutes (without previews and, if you're really lucky, a nine-minute prologue to next summer's Star Trek: Into Darkness also). Yes, the movie adds details and "fluff" to bolster and lengthen the original story, add characters, and connect it with the three epic movies we already know. Yes, we have wait an entire year for the second chapter and a year and a half for the finale. My answer to every one of those impatient complaints is, Peter Jackson, take your dear sweet time. I'm in no hurry. You go right ahead and nail it.
I'll say it right now and call it a hunch. It will all be worth it and you will be rewarded for your patience. This first movie is worth the time you put into it. Every great movie trilogy has its slower opening chapter of origins and establishing acts. This story is worth the patience required to see it all unfold. The breathtaking filmmaking vision on display is worth the patience to see through to the end. When it's all said and done, slower than its sequels or not, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will always be the place you seek to begin your cinematic adventure into this world. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is worthy of being placed beside the outstanding epics it will eventually lead towards. It more than carries enough compelling story and action to satiate us until The Desolation of Smaug next year.
For those who do not know the story,The Hobbit and this movie trilogy takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. After the older Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm) that we remember reintroduces us to the history of his world, we are taken back to his younger self (a perfectly-cast Martin Freeman) who's still the frazzled home-body he's supposed to be. The history he speaks of outside of the Shire surrounds the defeat of the great Dwarven kingdom within the mountain Erebor by the massive gold-seeking dragon Smaug (the mostly unseen threat awaiting the next movie) and the symbolic betrayal of the elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) by not having his forces aid the dwarves in their time of need, setting up the frosty dwarf/elf relationship we know in this series.
The dwarves, now lost without a homeland, are a scattered and broken race. The grandson of the last Erebor king, Thorin Oakenshield (the steely Richard Armitage, always shining in "movie hero" light), bands together a company of 13 wily and jovial dwarves with the goal of retaking the now "Lonely Mountain" of Erebor. Aided by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (the returning and fantastic Ian McKellen), the dwarves gain the hobbit Bilbo Baggins to their party. Gandalf convinces Thorin and his warriors that a dismissable halfling could prove useful in their quest. From there, through orcs, goblins, wolves, and danger from every direction, Bilbo embarks on an adventure to prove his resourcefulness and worth that we all know will change his life forever. Fate and destiny awaits him, as does crucial chance and curse upon meeting Gollum (the returning Andy Serkis in performance capture) and a very important piece of jewelry for the future.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has always been in the right hands with Peter Jackson. The man loves the material and his creativity knows no bounds. That said, the boost provided by Guillermo del Toro, the original director slated for this new series and co-writer before financial delays caused him to leave for Pacific Rim, is very noticeable. Details have more depth than just Jackson's usual touches, especially the monsters and creatures, a del Toro speciality. Shot in glorious and vivid 3D, the film is nothing short of a technical marvel in every category possible. Cinema snobs are going to have to seek out other reviews than this one for the much-discussed 48 versus 24 frames-per-second debate. I saw the film in IMAX 3D at the normal 24fps and it looked great to me. I hear it's a little disorienting in 48fps. Again, look elsewhere for that information.
Getting back on track, we know when the camera swoops (as Jackson's always does) and Howard Shore's brassy musical cues come on that we are in for a ride. The compelling action does not disappoint after the prerequisite slow start in the Shire. While the technology has greatly improved since the 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy, the visual palette of this film matches the huge scale and artistic styling of those previous Oscar winners. This new trilogy isn't going to end up as awkwardly matching as the Star Wars prequel trilogy to its original classics. On its own, the film's visual effects, production design, costumes, makeup, sound mixing, and musical score are all equally Oscar-worthy in their own right.
The Hobbit has also always been a rich story to tell. As a fan of the books or not, Middle Earth is a splendid place to spend three hours and it's been away for too long. The Hobbit deserves this level of epic treatment and, again, the patience required to deliver it the right way. While this huge party of dwarves (good luck telling them apart) might not be as individually memorable as the comprised fellowship of Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Samwise, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, and Frodo of Lord of the Rings, the leading power of Thorin Oakenshield and the singular hobbit focus on Bilbo Baggins instead of a quartet more than makes for its own impactful storytelling. As long as it was, I sure wasn't bored and found the story immensely engaging.
The last bit of patience I have to recommend is that we all wait to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey before we see how the second and third parts turn out. This is just the first chapter of a larger intended story. Wait to judge it that way and not quite as a singular work. Revisit each film when the story is completed. Most of us have wrongly judged books and movies by their first third. Imagine if you stopped watching Psycho when Marion Crane left Phoenix. Imagine if you stopped watching Superman when Krypton explodes. Imagine if you stopped watching Luke Skywaler and Star Wars before he leaves Tatooine. Have the patience to wait and see this story through. Call me confident that it will all be worth it.
LESSON #1: WE ALL SEEK ADVENTURE-- This movie and the novel its based may be complete works of fiction, taking place in an imaginary world of mysticism, magic, and lore, but the instinctual ideals of the characters in the stories match our own. We, in our lives, have felt many of the same emotions as Bilbo. Chief among them in this first chapter of his story, is the desire to seek out adventure. As grounded as we want to be or feel we are are, we men and women are inquisitive and imaginative. We all have had dreams of lives and achievements beyond those of our daily roles. They differ for everyone, but Bilbo gets his chance to have his adventure and seizes the opportunity.
LESSON #2: THE VALUES OF LOYALTY, HONOR, AND A WILLING HEART-- Those three qualities are the quoted requested requirements of Thorin Oakenshield's respect and leadership. They are each powerful attributes demonstrated by heroic characters throughout this film and the whole series. Each are also lessons and values earned and learned by the normally self-involved Bilbo throughout his adventure during The Hobbit. His diminutive size on the outside only hides the tremendous character inside.
LESSON #3: TRUE COURAGE IS ABOUT NOT KNOWING WHEN TO TAKE A LIFE, BUT WHEN TO SPARE ONE-- Continuing with the gem quotes within the film, Gandalf gives Bilbo this notion to remember when the normally-pacifist halfling realizes that he may indeed have to draw and use the sword he has been given. There is indeed courage in non-violence over violence. Though a time may indeed come when we have to defend ourselves with force or when killing is an option, the real bravery comes in mercy and benevolence, not victory and bloodshed.