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A Familiar Ring

MOVIE REVIEW
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

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James Fisher/Warner Brothers Pictures

No one will ever know what visual delights auteur and cinematic genius Guillermo del Toro would have conjured up for Middle Earth; but in the hands of Peter Jackson and his team, everything seems comfortable and familiar, or is it?

This is definitely Middle Earth, but a more innocent and happy place than seen in “The Lord of the Rings.” Four hundred years of peace have made the colors brighter, the world is greener, the skies bluer. Even Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is more jovial than ever before. This is a different world. Sauron (Benedict Cumberbatch as Necromancer, replacing Sala Baker) is still in his deepest slumber; and although evil is stirring, a shadow moves to the East, no-one has anything to fear. This is not “The Lord of the Rings.”

Three-D has now become commonplace, used mostly to no real effect — although there are some nice flourishes here, but the new revolution is 48 frames per second and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is the flagship of this new format. The first thing that stands out is the clarity of the image: the picture is as sharp as a pin, every detail bursting out of the screen.

However, at least until the eyes have adjusted, the wobbly movement of the camera is heightened by the lack of motion blur at the edges of the frame. This means that during the early action sequences in particular, even the slightest movement of the camera is brought into sharp focus and can be disconcerting. It gives the illusion during some moments that the action has been ever so slightly sped up. Following Smaug through his attack on Erebor, swooping through the sky around the towers of the Dwarven realm, is a giddying experience. Those sensitive to motion sickness may take longer to acclimatize.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a visual feast. Mr. Jackson of course takes every opportunity to once again flatter the awe-inspiring vistas of New Zealand. The camera soaks up the landscape, soaring through the air and plummeting into the depths of the Misty Mountains. On occasion, though, in his anxiety to move the story forward and get to the next blistering action sequence — of which there are many — Mr. Jackson perhaps denies the audience the chance to really take everything in.

The story starts slowly as does the book, but once out on the track it gallops onwards like a thoroughbred, barely stopping to catch it’s breath. It is exhilarating, and defines “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” as an action film rather then simply a fantasy. “The Lord of the Rings” was a long, albeit beautiful, walk. This is a downhill slide on a tea tray.

The story does suffer due to the structure of the book. It feels a little disjointed at times: a series of disconnected events, things happening to the characters as part of their journey rather than as part of a larger story. So although the vignettes of East End Trolls, Storm Giants and the Goblin King all excite and enthrall in their own right, they have no real connection to the larger whole. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have tried to correct this by tying the story more to “The Lord of the Rings,” suggesting that Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) already knows more than he’s saying, and that dark forces are already rising in every corner of Middle Earth. Mr. Jackson and his team have also brought in additional material from the Appendices and from “Unfinished Tales” to compliment the main storyline of the film. It’s a heady mix; it is nice to see some old friends back together for the White Council, but characters like Radagast the Brown, played with joyful exuberance by Sylvester McCoy, only serve to further unbalance that sense of mixed tone.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has plenty of pace and energy, and does not feel unnecessarily padded or lengthened. In fact, the 174 minutes merrily whisks by without ever feeling labored. This choice to weave the story into the earlier films works to a degree, but it will be interesting to see as the trilogy pans out how those decisions pay off.

The acting is strong across the board, and the tone of the film is generally light and perky. Richard Armitage brings some much needed gravitas as Thorin, or the antics of the dwarves could easily have descended into farce. In fact they are an entertaining, colorful and loveable array of social misfits, but the later entries into the trilogy are going to have to darken the tone if “The Hobbit” ever wishes to reach the emotional depth of “The Lord of the Rings.”

Martin Freeman carries the biggest burden, and tries to do so with his usual blend of bewildered facial expressions and huffs of frustration that British television viewers have come to know and love him for. Where Elijah Wood had a subtle mixture of youthful naivety and wisdom beyond his years, Mr. Freeman sticks mostly to the one level. It does feel at times as though he is out of his depth, but perhaps this is part of the reason for his casting. Bilbo Baggins is a fish out of water, a country squire dragged off on a quest for extremely spurious reasons; and it can only be hoped that Mr. Freeman’s performance will mature as Bilbo changes in reaction to the world he is discovering. There were signs of this in the last third of the film, but this trilogy wants to be epic, and needs a weighty performance to match that ambition. Thankfully Mr. McKellen is present to remind us why there is no one else who could possibly play Gandalf.

Howard Shore’s soundtrack ticks all the boxes — a mixtape of greatest hits from “The Lord of the Rings” and some new material for good measure. The music doesn’t have those pinnacle moments of “The Lord of the Rings,” but it captures the essence of Middle Earth and bottles it very nicely.

There is more than enough to like about “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”: the action sequences are stunning, the landscape awe-inspiring, and there’s something very comforting about being in Middle Earth. Mr. Jackson has returned triumphant, and let’s hope that parts two and three build on what he has begun.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY  

Opens on Dec. 13 in Britain and on Dec. 14 in the United States.

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Mr. Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro, based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jabez Olssen; music by Howard Shore; production design by Dan Hennah; costumes by Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor and Bob Buck; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Ms. Walsh and Mr. Jackson; released by New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Adam Brown (Ori), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman) and Andy Serkis (Gollum).

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