Hobbit still

By C.J. Bunce

Director Peter Jackson could have sat back with his Academy Awards for the brilliant The Lord of the Rings trilogy and relished in what he had done.  Instead he took on the risk of conquering Middle Earth again, and in doing so he did something I’ve never seen anyone do before, make a fourth entry into a major movie franchise that surpassed all prior films.  And that’s a hefty feat considering what The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is being compared to.  But in end-to-end storytelling, cinematography, casting, acting, adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s source work, spirit and heart, this first installment of The Hobbit trilogy can’t be beat.

Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins presents a Hobbit in goodness on par with Samwise and with a strength of purpose on par with the King of Gondor.  You cannot rave enough about Martin Freeman’s facial expressions and movements as the put-upon Hobbit.  Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield pulls together the best of Faramir and Aragorn, yet his characterization is fully fleshed out in its own right with a brilliantly laid out character arc that took Aragorn three movies to achieve.

Merry band

It is hard to believe that someone can take a band of 13 dwarves and make most of them individually compelling.  You may get lost in Ken Stott’s wise old dwarf Balin and forget he is a dwarf–this wise soul and sturdy character speak loudly throughout the story.  Aidan Turner’s cocky and plucky Kili will make you laugh at every turn in the way we saw Merry and Pippin in the LOTR movies.  And the nature of The Hobbit story targeted as a younger audience vs the themes of The Lord of the Rings books means many more comical moments here, despite a dark and eerie adventure.  Peter Jackson’s film looks so good that he makes it all look so easy.

Ian McKellan’s Gandalf the Grey is back, and you only wish we could see ten more adventures featuring the best wizard ever presented on-screen.  We also meet a friendlier Elrond of the Elves played again by Hugo Weaving.  An “epilogue” featuring Elijah Wood and original Bilbo actor Ian Holm at the movie’s beginning bridges The Hobbit right up to the scene before Frodo first meets up with Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring.  We also meet Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel again.  Although it is likely these LOTR characters were not needed for this movie, it’s a fun reunion for fans of the earlier films, and it also allows us an excuse to see the splendor and hear the sounds of nature at New Zealand’s Hobbiton.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The 3D imaging and cinematography surpass any film to date in pretty much every way.  Where CGI characters in all past sci-fi and fantasy franchises never quite got right the realism of key characters or at best “almost” got it right, you will not see the same odd movements or doubt the believability of these unreal creatures, especially Barry Humphries’ (Dame Edna!?) Great Troll.  And Andy Serkis’s Gollum looks even better than he did before.

Classic scenes from the original novel, like the arrival of the dwarves at Bilbo’s house and the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum are just simply perfect.  Special effects and new film wizardry present too many examples of incredible cinema to list, but even something as simple as feeling like you’re sitting across the table from a bunch of dwarves is better than the effects of most other films.  Then there are other scenes, like the delicate carrying across a canyon of a wounded dwarf by a giant eagle’s talons, that reflect a fillmaking magic act in and of itself.

Balin

Although some may see the beginning half of the movie as slow, the measured pace will be savored by others, and the pace allows you to see every axe swing in each action scene instead of the blurred battles in most recent action movies.  You can also admire the stitches and buttons and armor of the costumes, the excellent crafted props like smartly forged swords and a key to a hidden door, as well as the stunning environments, including a return to the beautiful waterfalls at Rivendell.  The story then propels at a breakneck pace to the end, including overhead scenes of the band of dwarves as they move through mountain passes, and we meet a quirky and noble new wizard named Radagast the Brown played by Sylvester McCoy (the Seventh Doctor!) and his speedy team of sled rabbits who lead a mercenary pack of trolls and wolves away from the story’s heroes on their quest.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo

Two singing numbers by the elves are surprisingly good, one upbeat and one not, and the filmmakers use the more somber, reverent tune by the dwarves in a more upbeat version for the film’s end credits–and it’s a great song.

You’ll want to see this first of three installments of The Hobbit again and again.  The only negative:  the next installment, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, is not out until December 13, 2013.