Monday, November 18, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The second part of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy will arrive in about one month, so I am revisiting my experience watching the first movie in the theatre. An Unexpected Journey is entertaining but bloated and frustratingly familiar. 

The story follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) years before his younger cousin Frodo's adventures in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo's mentor, drops by one day to take Bilbo on an adventure. More than a dozen dwarves join them in an attempt to reclaim their treasure and homeland from a greedy dragon. Jackson doesn't just follow J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit. He adds tidbits from other Tolkien books to flesh out the story.

The film's ambiance is jarring, alternately somber and colorfully childish. The latter is the more endearing, mainly because it is more original. Many shots and scenes come across as a worn imitation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Action scenes are repetitive and confusing, while other scenes drag on. Cutting a good 45 minutes might have improved the pacing.

That said, revisiting Tolkien's work is nostalgic. Its ominous tone, including a glimpse of the dark "necromancer," foreshadows the increasing perils in The Lord of the Rings. The characters are charming. Bilbo is more mischievous and developed than the movie-version's saintly Frodo (Elijah Wood). (It is still nice to see Frodo again.) The dwarves, though stereotypes, including Richard Armitage's Thorin, are nicely acted and likable.

There is something enjoyable about talking monsters. Their humor SLIGHTLY humanizes them. Unfortunately, a white, giant orc is given a very cheesy role as Thorin's nemesis. The film dwells far too long on how evil this creature is. We had three movies to discover how bad orcs are. I didn't find this plotline compelling.

Perhaps the best scene of the film occurs between Bilbo and (SPOILER ALERT) Gollum (Andy Serkis). It is one of the most subtle moments in a loud, heavy-handed movie. The encounter between the former hobbit-like creature, a currently mad Gollum, and the inexperienced but crafty hobbit Bilbo is genuinely suspenseful.

The cinematography and music are lovely, but all derivative. It feels more like a copy than an ode. The Hobbit could have been a truly resonant, enchanting movie instead of a trilogy. The makers could have distinguished this film from its predecessors. But the lure of gold, as Smaug the dragon would agree, is strong enough to justify one movie for the price of three.