Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Movie Review)

I should start by saying that I'm not a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's books. That's not to say I think they are bad books, but the writing style is too dry and formal for my tastes. I read The Hobbit in Junior High for a reading class I was in, and re-enacted Bilbo's slaying of the giant spider in my book report presentation to the class. But I soon moved on to Terry Brooks, then later Terry Goodkind and Brent Weeks, and have never been able to force feed The Lord Of The Rings books to myself. Today I remember more about presenting that book report than I do about the book itself.

That said, I'm a huge fan of the fantasy genre, which owes much of its existence to Tolkien. I also loved the Peter Jackson Lord Of The Rings movies. So when I heard that he would be back in the saddle to direct a movie based on The Hobbit, I was more than interested.

Of course then came the news that his film version of The Hobbit would be split into two movies, which smelled a bit like a money grab from the studio, but ah well. Should have expected as much. However not much later it was announced that The Hobbit would not be two movies, but three. And though I heard that Jackson and company would pull from other Tolkien Middle Earth material to fill things out, I couldn't help but sigh and lower my expecations. It sounded like studio execs were hoping to relive the glory days of the Rings trilogy box office sales, rather than create one really great movie that would perform well for them.

Trailers looked just as great as the previous Lord Of The Rings films, but I went into the theater wondering if story points and action would just be too spread out to amount to an experience of the same calibre as Jackson's previous Tolkien films. How much would this movie rely on our love of what has come before and how much would it stand on its own merits?

From the very start it's clear that this is a different story from Lord Of The Rings with a very different feel. From the opening music to the last moments, this is not a "quest" movie as much as it is an "adventure" movie. The visual design, the score, the script, the characters, all have a much lighter feel to them when compared to the largely serious tone of the Lord of The Rings, even though you still see limbs being chopped off now and then to earn that PG-13.

Much of this shift in tone is because of the underlying motivation for the quest. This movie is not about saving the world or defending against a coming evil. It's about seeing and experiencing the world and reclaiming something that, although wonderful and good, is not vital to anyone's survival. The stakes are much lower and we all know Bilbo will survive the tale. There are also numerous action sequences that are extremely improbable, even in Middle Earth. Much of the film feels more like a funhouse ride than a quest that actually puts anyone in danger.

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit scooped up into a quest by Gandalf the wizard, who is traveling with 13 dwarves on a quest to reclaim their homeland. Although by the end of the film his motives become a little deeper, Bilbo initially joins this quest purely out of a spirit of adventure.

The displaced Dwarven prince leading the expedition has a much deeper motivation, and I think the story would have been strengthened by making his story more central, perhaps even making him the lead character. Of course then we'd have to call the m ovie "The Dwarven Prince", but honestly I think that has a better ring to it and would have made a more compelling central story. (Yes, yes, Tolkien fans. You may now scream "blasphemy" in response to my ignorance and disrespect.)

The narrative as a whole also has a slight "anthology of Middle Earth stories" feel to it, as flashbacks are dipped into a little more often than you'd expect. At one point the story even awkwardly shifted to focus on another character in another place, whom I thought might have nothing to do with the main story until he eventually joined the main characters later on.

The camera work is as superb as ever and the performances, though serving a lighter story, are all high caliber. I'm a little dissapointed that the effects don't look any better considering how many years have passed since Return Of The King was in theaters. Orcs and Goblins were also mostly CG creations instead of using make-up, even in close-ups. A choice I'm confused and let down by. Peter Jackson didn't seem to be putting quite as much effort into this film (though it's hard to blame him as he put his health at risk at times whole working on The Lord Of The Rings).

Even so, this is a very good movie that fantasy fans will probably enjoy more than most fantasy films released since Return Of The King.

There are a few relevant moral themes in the film, but they don't stand out too strongly. One I notices was that of courage, and the idea that sometimes courage is about NOT killing your enemy, but letting them live. The principle remains true in less dramatic circumstances as well. Sometimes it takes more courage and strength of character to walk away from verbal fisticuffs than it does to pummel someone in a heated exchange.

Selflessness also comes into play near the end of the film, as Bilbo's motivation shifts from wanting to have an adventure to wanting to help the dwarves have a place to call home again.

While you shouldn't let your love of Lord Of The Rings force you into seeing this movie in theaters, if you're a fan of the genre you definitely ought to see it sometime.

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Quality: 8.5/10

Relevance: 6.5/10

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