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Movie review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

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(170 minutes; rated "PG-13" for violence and intense action scenes.) 

(5 out of 10 stars)

Nothing is more exciting to us self-proclaimed sci-fi dorks than the thought of a return to Middle-Earth. I mean, it has been 10 years!

Peter Jackson's multiple award-winning and ground-breaking trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" from 2001-2003 was movie making at its finest. It had no deficiencies. It satiated all cravings for sci-fi geekdom that possess our self-professed geeky souls.

And now finally, and I do mean finally, to get "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three films based upon the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, into movie theaters this past weekend — well, that's as good as Christmas gets, isn't it?

Not so fast.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was, unfortunately, an unexpected mixed bag.

What most casual Tolkien and sci-fi fans do not realize is that "The Hobbit" is a children's book.  Tolkien wrote it for his children. My 10 year-old nephew just finished it. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, conversely, is not. It was written 10 years after "The Hobbit" and in the middle of penning it, Tolkien realized his audience had matured (just as his children grew) and it became something much more grand and sophisticated. 

This is something of which I must warn the casual LOTR fan, and most important, I wish I could have told Peter Jackson, the movie's producer, co-writer, and director, since he missed that distinction entirely.

"The Hobbit" is a wonderful story that tells the tale of a hobbit (a docile creature that is roughly one-half the size of a normal man, with the same look and proportion but with elvish ears and furry feet) who is coerced/convinced to join a band of 13 dwarves in a quest to recapture their mountain kingdom from an enormous fire-breathing dragon. Set in a magical and mythologically influenced "Middle-Earth" where wizards cast spells and goblins and orcs rule the night, our story's hero, Bilbo Baggins, is challenged time and again in his anointed roll as the group's burglar.

The major problem with this movie is when Jackson deviates from Tolkien's story. To begin the movie, we get the backstory about how the dwarves lost their mountain kingdom to Smaug the dragon and how they subsequently scattered throughout the world. Then we get to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, who played old Bilbo and Frodo, respectively, in the original LOTR trilogy (and who were nowhere mentioned in book). I understand the studio's need to put in massive action scenes to open a movie, but it was 20 minutes in before we got the famous opening sentence from the book ("In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit").

From there it bounces all around, but it becomes evident that Tolkien's imagination was far superior to Jackson's and company. Extraneous storylines that are devices for action sequences and subplot points border on the ridiculous. For example, there is a middle-level orc boss inserted throughout the movie who has vowed revenge upon the leader of the dwarves and seemingly has an endless army of CGI wargs (massive wolf-like creatures) regardless of how many are killed. 

In attempt to tie the movie back to the LOTR, Jackson tries to expand "the darkness" creeping back into Middle-Earth and introduces an insanely stupid and bumbling Radagast the Brown, a wizard who protects the wildlife of the world (and who is only briefly mentioned in "The Hobbit"). Equipped with the beard from hell, a bird's nest under his hat (which leads to a nauseating line of caked-on bird dung permanently affixed to the side of his face), and a sled pulled by bunnies (really?  I mean, really?), he quickly becomes the Jar-Jar Binks of this movie.  And no, the comparisons to that trilogy (which should not have been made) are not lost on me.

Jackson should have left the storytelling to the master. There is a reason Tolkien is considered one of the best English writers of the last 300 years and Jackson is nowhere close to his league.  Where he deviated from the book is where the movie limped along. When he let the story tell itself, the film sung. Part of the brilliance of LOTR was that Jackson stayed true to the book and he admitted that it did. With "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" he apparently attempted to relive the glory of LOTR . "The Hobbit" is not capable of that. The end result was a big miss.

There is much to admire about this movie, however.

First and foremost, was that this movie was shot in a higher frame-rate per second (48 vs. the standard 24), which lends clarity to the depth of the shot, as well as non-blurry imagery when the camera pans quickly. Given Jackson's trademark penchant for huge, sweeping panoramic shots, it generally worked well. It took a bit of getting used to, much like looking at things through new glasses, but 20 minutes into the movie I found it added quite a bit (although there was one point in the movie in a close-up shot where I swore I saw Ian McKellen's contacts.)

The acting was first-rate, beginning with Sir Ian McKellen. I have to admit, I could watch this man read the phone book and I would be highly entertained, but I loved the way he found the light-heartedness of the children's book for his character. If the movies were watched in order, you could see the character development of Gandalf come alive so wonderfully well.

We also got a scene with Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee (albeit again, not in the book) that actually worked well. Perhaps it was their acting, perhaps it was the writing, but it was the one nice reference back to the LOTR that was welcome. 

Martin Freeman as Bilbo provided just the right amount of quirkiness to his character and as the movie ended, we began to see the necessary transformation to a more confident hobbit. Richard Armitage played Thorin, the exiled prince and leader of the dwarves, and he does a nice job as this trilogy's Viggo Mortensen. There were no Academy Award performances, but the script really does not lend itself to that type of consideration.

Between the acting, the remarkable sets put against the stunning New Zealand scenery (it made me want to buy a DVD of that alone) and the majestic score from Howard Shore, there were long, satisfying moments in my return to Middle-Earth. Sadly, they had to be punctuated with loud and banal moments of idiocy from Jackson when he thought he could better Tolkien.

If you ask me whether you should see it, I certainly recommend it for the theater. The new, improved technology, the CGI, the score, and Ian McKellen (just to make you shudder, we almost got Sean Connery as Gandalf) make the trip well worth it. If you can simply prepare yourself to ignore Jackson's lunacy, you will be all the better for it.

I give the film five stars out of 10.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!