Movie review: Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth in ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

96816_galBy Ashley Bergner
Box Office Buzz

It’s been almost a decade since fans last had a chance to visit Middle-earth in theaters. The fantasy world created by author J.R.R. Tolkien was brought to life in Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of “Lord of the Rings” films, which came to a conclusion in 2003 with the Oscar-winning “Return of the King.” Ever since then, fans have been hoping Jackson would return to Middle-earth and film Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel, “The Hobbit.” Although getting “The Hobbit” to the big screen has been a complicated process — mired by a legal battle between Jackson and New Line Cinema, which produced the LOTR films, and the departure of Guillermo del Toro, who was originally hired to direct the film — the movie finally came to theaters this Friday. And it was well worth the wait.

The film follows a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, whom LOTR fans will recognize as the uncle of Frodo, the hobbit who carries the One Ring to Mount Doom. Bilbo isn’t, at first, as adventurous a hobbit as his nephew. He enjoys a quiet life with good friends and good food, and doesn’t feel particularly compelled to venture beyond the comfort of the Shire. However, the wizard Gandalf sees a spark of greatness inside Bilbo, and sends him off on a quest with a band of Dwarves to reclaim the Dwarves’ treasure from a dragon named Smaug. It’s a quest that will have a dramatic impact not only on Bilbo, but on the entire land of Middle-earth, setting in motion events that will lead to an epic showdown with the dark lord Sauron in the LOTR movies.

While “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (the first film in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy) scored a respectable 65 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (meaning 65 percent of critics gave it a thumb’s up), it’s lower than the 90+ percent scored by the “Lord of the Rings” films. However, I’d definitely encourage viewers to check it out for themselves, especially those who are fans of Tolkien’s novels or the previous LOTR films. I thoroughly enjoyed the new “Hobbit” film, and I found it to be a fun, rousing adventure that made me fall in love with the land of Middle-earth all over again.

With “The Hobbit,” Peter Jackson is able to capture the overall tone and style of the LOTR films, while at the same time giving this new film its own unique voice. It’s a more light-hearted film than the LOTR series, which is fitting due to the fact Tolkien intended “The Hobbit” to be more of a children’s book (though like all great children’s literature, it’s just as enjoyable for adults). It’s nice to see a different perspective of Middle-earth, and the story doesn’t just feel like a retread of the LOTR films.

Fans will be excited to see some familiar characters from the LOTR trilogy, including Frodo, Galadriel, Elrond and the wizard Gandalf, who is played once again by the great Ian McKellen. Among the newcomers, my favorite was Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo. I’ve been a fan of Freeman’s ever since I saw him in the quirky, underrated sci-fi comedy “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and he’s also been excellent in his role as Dr. Watson in the BBC’s popular TV series “Sherlock.” Freeman’s dry sense of humor and no-nonsense manner serve him well in this role, and he does great, subtle work with facial expressions. I was so excited when I first heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, and he didn’t disappoint me in this film. I also thought Richard Armitage was excellent as the Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield. He gives the character a quiet, brooding intensity and a sense of nobility that make him stand out as a leader.

While it can be hard to keep track of all the Dwarves in Thorin’s band (there are 13), I liked all the characters and thought Peter Jackson did a good job making sure to differentiate each one. The LOTR films focused more on Elven and human cultures and characters, so it was nice to get a closer look at what Middle-earth’s Dwarf culture is like and how Dwarves interact as a group (the LOTR films had only one main Dwarf character, Gimli).

It’s been a while since I’ve read “The Hobbit,” but to my knowledge the film followed the book fairly closely, while also drawing on some of Tolkien’s other writings. Although there are some good action set pieces, my favorite scene in the movie was actually one of its simplest — Bilbo and Gollum’s duel of riddles deep in the heart of the mountain. The scene was just like how I imagined it when reading the book, and it shows off Andy Serkis’ amazing talents as a motion capture artist.

I probably could find places to nitpick in this movie if I really wanted to, but I had so much fun watching “The Hobbit” I found myself more than willing to overlook a few minor flaws. It was fun to just sit back and enjoy the ride, and get swept up in the wonder of Middle-earth once again. I’m also still not certain Peter Jackson needed to expand the series into a trilogy (I think the story would have been fine as a two-parter), but I certainly won’t complain about getting to watch more Tolkien films. 🙂 It’s been a good journey so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Jackson plans to do with the next two films.

Also, as a quick note, Peter Jackson has received quite a bit of flak from fans and critics about the high frame rate used in certain screenings of the film. The higher frame rate results in a crisper, clearer picture, but many don’t seem to like the effect. I will say that I saw the film twice over the weekend, once in high frame rate 3D and once in IMAX regular 3D. Regardless of how you ultimately feel about the high frame rate, you definitely WILL notice it. It did feel unnatural and distracting at first, almost “too real.”

But as the movie went on, I grew more used to it, and I actually did like the higher frame rate in sweeping, panoramic shots of the landscape. I still think I like the traditional cinematic look the best, which has more of a gauzy richness that viewers are used to. But if you’re curious, I’d recommend giving the higher frame rate a try, just to see what it’s like. And it’s definitely worth splurging to see the film in IMAX, especially since the IMAX screening includes a special sneak-preview of J.J. Abrams’ upcoming “Star Trek” film.


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