Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexptected Journey (2012) Review

This week, I slung on my best geek duds and headed out to check out the first movie in the new Tolkien trilogy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) starring Martin Freeman and Ian McKellan and directed by Peter Jackson.

I'm going to start this review with a confession. Initially, I didn't have much desire to see this film. The trailers looked interesting, but entirely too familiar. I was going to wait for this to be released on DVD. Then I read an article that said the new Man of Steel trailer and the first 9 minutes (yeah, NINE MINUTES) of the new Star Trek: Into Darkness movie would be playing in front of it if you watched it in IMAX 3D. So, for the first time in my adult life, I paid $17.50 to sit at the extreme left-hand side of a packed movie theatre, just to watch the opening trailers.

This review is not about said trailers, awesome as they might have been. No, this review is about Peter Jackson's latest homage to J.R.R. Tolkien. 

I'm going to get the obvious out of the way so I can actually talk about the movie. This movie is only the first movie in a trilogy. It clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes. The second and third movies will likely clock in even longer. I'm guessing nearly 9 hours of screen time will be dedicated to telling a tale that was originally a 400 page children's book. If that seems like an awful lot of hours of cinema for a 400 page children's book, that's because it is. Nobody is quite sure why this movie started out as a single feature, then ballooned into two films and finally bloated it's way into a trilogy, but you can bet some dollar signs had something to do with it. So, like every other reviewer is saying, this entire enterprise comes across as an enormous cash grab. There. That's out of the way. Let's talk about the film!

The story of this first film centers on Bilbo Baggins, shown first played by the same actor who played him in the LOTR trilogy, Ian Holm. Old Biblo (as he's credited) begins to write down the one tale he didn't tell Frodo (played by Elijah Wood, who makes a brief cameo) about how he came to possess the One Ring. The action shifts to 60 years in the past to a young Bilbo played by Martin Freeman. Young Bilbo is then thrown, quite to his surprise, into a group of rambunctious dwarves on a quest to regain their homeland. This group is put together by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), who apparently didn't age at all in the ensuing 60 years. 

I'd like to tell you there's more to the story than this, but I'd be lying. Other than meeting some elves, discussing copious amounts of past events, shoehorning as many characters from the previously successful trilogy as possible (whether they appeared in the book or not) and getting into some pretty pointless battles, the group starts off walking to the old dwarven stronghold and ends up still walking to the old dwarven stronghold.

Even though there isn't a ton of story to follow, the visuals are stunning. This is probably the prettiest movie you'll see this year. The only problem with that is it's exactly what you're expecting. I could still appreciate the wide vistas and the beautiful landscapes, but knowing it was a Peter Jackson film based on a Tolkien work filmed in the same areas as the previous trilogy, I wouldn't have expected any less. For all it's grandeur and majesty, it comes across as something we've all seen before.

Ian McKellan does a great job with the role of Gandalf. In the previous trilogy, Gandalf spent much of it as the returned Gandalf the White. He was very serious and foreboding. In this film, he still gets to be Gandalf the Grey and you can tell he's having fun with it. He spends a little too much time arriving just in the nick of time to save the day, but we can forgive him this as he's just fantastic in the role.

Martin Freeman plays the young Bilbo Baggins. Unfortunately, he kind of gets lost among the large cast of characters. Between 12 dwarves, Gandalf, all the various baddies and the aforementioned shoehorned characters, Freeman just doesn't get that much to do. It really didn't help that I had recently watched The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) in which Freeman stars as Arthur Dent in a role nearly identical to this one. An outsider thrust into a role he's woefully unprepared for in a land completely different from his own surrounded by people who all seem to have a much better grasp of what's going on than he does. And in the end, he turns out to be the hero of the story. Honestly, talk about being typecast to a role.

As for the dwarves, other than Thorin (played by Richard Armitage who, most of the time, looks like he's a very frustrated male model working on his smokey glare) and Balin (Ken Stott),
most of them just wind up getting lost in the shuffle. The makeup and hair is pretty great and the camera work to make them all look a few feet shorter than Gandalf is very well done. They just don't really seem to connect with the audience most of the time.

Then there's the soundtrack. I know most reviewers don't really talk about a film's music much, but I think it's a vital component to making a great film. Fairly early in the film, the dwarves all gather around and start to sing a deep, throaty ballad that helps to explain their plight. At the time, it's moving and quite stirring at the same time. Unfortunately, the composer (Howard Shore) must have really liked it as it crops up in the orchestral music about 27 times throughout the rest of the film. That's a very rough estimate, but it feels about right. Twenty seven. I can tell you by the 13th time or so, I was all done with the little ditty. Little did I know how much more I'd be hearing it.

And that takes me to the biggest problem I have with this film. It's length. I don't hate long movies in general. Never think it. But if you're going to put nearly three hours of film on the screen, you'd better have some damned good pacing to keep me interested. This film didn't. At about the 90 minute mark I distinctly remember looking at my watch and thinking "wow, how am I only halfway through this thing?". Make no mistake, this movie is a behemoth. The funny thing is, I went to see this movie with my best friend and he was thinking the same thing around the same time and nearly asked me if I wanted to go. It seems he and I share the same taste in pacing.

In short, McKellan is great, Freeman is typecast (watch him as Dr John H Watson on the BBC series Sherlock and you'll see how badly he was used in this film), the visuals are pretty and my ass was numb after an hour and a half. If you're a fanboy, go see this film. If you're not, wait until it comes out on DVD/Bluray and wait for a Sunday afternoon where you have absolutely nothing else to do for a few hours. Then do something else anyway.

3 out of 5 stars.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on Jan 02 2013
Rating: 3

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