Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (**1/2)


THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Directed by Peter Jackson

**1/2

There seems to be two kinds of people in the world. One type has read all of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings books and sang the praises - high and loudly - of every frame of Peter Jackson's trilogy of film adaptations, even going on to further suggest that these three bloated films (all three hover around three hours, with the last one spilling way over) could be even longer with all the material that was left out of the screenplay. Another type (my type, in case that wasn't obvious already) never read the books and found the three movies to interminable - like cinematic waterboarding - and the thought that any of the movies could be even a second longer, makes this type of person ponder a manic, hard-to-keep-your-hand-off-the-knife kind of lunacy. Like Democrats and Republicans, these two types of people not only disagree but fail to see anything but stupidity in the other side's logic. So, alas, Peter Jackson went ahead and made The Hobbit into three movies, the first of which just came out, bringing the two sides clashing again, but I'd bet only one side is actually going to pay money to see it.


As expected, Jackson's first installment An Unexpected Journey arrived in theaters at midnight last Thursday and ate up all of the box office that was available, not unlike all of the dwarves that eat up all of the food in Bilbo Baggins' house in a charming scene early in the film. This is an unsettling Hollywood trend that started with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy: building bigger and bigger box office while making more and more films in a franchise to feed off those devoted fanbases. This is why the last installments in the Harry Potter and Twilight film series were broken up into two parts ("Let's make the same amount of money twice!") and that certain franchises - i.e. Spiderman, or The Hulk which has had THREE different Hulks in nine years - reboot stories only several years after the original was established ("Let's make the same amount of money again! With the same story!"). You can't really blame all of this on The Lord of the Rings. After all, all three films were based on three books. But much in the way that Jaws has inspired decades of horrible and tacky disaster blockbusters, that original trilogy has created a monster that I don't see stopping any time soon.

But The Hobbit is not three books. It is, in fact, one pretty short one. And there are moments in this first installment where it seems like Peter Jackson is going out of his way to make the film longer, going into novel-like detail that makes the film drag often. But at the very least, it drags because it brings the audience a lot of information, not in the Mallickian kind of way where the camera sits and focuses on a single image for plodding periods of time. It's action scenes are more or less thrilling, if not surprisingly graphic in its violence (that this film - with its beheadings and bloody battle scenes - can walk away with a PG-13 and Blue Valentine has to fight for an R just because of a cunnilingus scene where both actors have their clothes on fills me with such rage that I don't even want to start the rant for fear that it will never end). And while the stakes never seem as high as Lord of the Rings - since The Hobbit was always more of a kid's story, anyway - it does have moments of brisk excitement that can make the experience that much less excruciating.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, it follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a very homebodied hobbit who lives in the Shire. He would much rather sit on his stoop smoking his pipe than anything else, and that becomes problematic when Gandolf the Grey (Ian McKellen) shows up at his home and asks him to participate in an adventure. Bilbo treats Gandolf with the reserve one may treat an insane homeless man until he finally realizes who Gandalf actually is. But even after that's established, Bilbo makes clear that he has no interest in adventures. That night, though, thirteen dwarves show up at his door, inviting themselves in and having a free go at all of his food and drinks, and causing a ruckus to boot. It is not till Gandalf finally arrives back that Bilbo knows what all of this is about.

Gandolf explains that Bilbo is to become the fourteenth member of this motley crew of dwarves that are setting out to take back their home, The Lonely Mountain. Explained in detail in a prologue at the beginning of the film, their home and all of the treasures that it possesses, is taken from them by the evil dragon Smaug. Led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), these dwarves plan to lead an attack against Smaug to get everything back which they deserve. Gandalf thinks that a hobbit, Bilbo especially, would be a good asset to the crew, since hobbits are small, quick and all of their worst enemies are unfamiliar with the scent of hobbits. Bilbo isn't much interested in the dangerous aspect of this quest - especially since he's perfectly capable of living free of any danger in The Shire, where he'll have plenty to keep him happy.

But then Bilbo has a change of heart (because, let's face it, if he didn't, there wouldn't be a movie), and decides to take a chance and join the dwarves on their quest. Almost immediately, they face peril on the form of hungry, belligerent trolls that tie them to a spit; orks sporting ferocious direwolves; and even the always-entertaining Gollum (motion-capture extraordinaire Andy Serkis) makes a sparse appearance where Bilbo finally gets his hand on that pesky ring. The neurotic, split-personalitied Gollum has always been the most fascinating of all in these stories, for me anyway, and his entrance was definitely the most welcoming part of the movie for me. Too bad we are well past the two-hour mark when it finally happens.

Peter Jackson has shown that he has an understanding of these stories and tells them with great tenderness and nostalgia, which is probably why fans of the books love them so much. An Unexpected Journey is an overall pleasant experience, even if it is too long. But to call a Peter Jackson-helmed Tolkein story "too long" seems almost old fashioned at this point (like saying Van Halen is boring cause there's too much guitar). Truth is, it's actually shorter than all of the Lord of the Rings movies, and I found Martin Freeman to be a much more charming and endearing fellow to spend three hours with than Elijah Wood (not that I don't like Wood, it's just the truth). There still seems to be a bit of a listless feeling to this movie. Did we really need it? The fact that it is currently piling racks-on-racks-on-racks of cash seems to show that plenty of people wanted it, so I guess that answers the question. But I can't help but feel like this movie was made out of habit and obligation than passion. After all, it took a lot of strong-arming to get Jackson to direct it to begin with. 

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