Take 5: Returning to Middle Earth

This weekend saw the release of the much-anticipated film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This is the first film of a planned three that adapts the book of the same name. Directed by the same man as the Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson, the hype surrounding the movie has been huge. Does it live up?

In a short answer, yes. The film is an enjoyable one, albeit one that could have benefited from a more concise editorial finger. Alas, this is Peter Jackson we’re dealing with, so no long landscape shot or dwarf working song was trimmed.

The film’s primary problem is in the first act. There is far too much exposition. The prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring was a perfect way to inform your non-Tolkien fans about the long, complex history of the world of Middle Earth. It was concise (only seven minutes) and introduced the key players quickly (the ring, the elves, Sauron, Isildur, etc). This prologue on the other hand meanders on and just doesn’t set up as much interest in the characters or conflict as the prior prologue did.

Following the prologue the exposition continues, as the first chapter of The Hobbit is seemingly shown word-for-word. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up to the hobbit’s Bilbo Baggin’s (Martin Freeman) house along with thirteen dwarves as they intend to claim their homeland from the dragon Smaug. Gandalf has apparently chosen Bilbo to be the last member of their company. There are a good thirty minutes spent in the home of Bilbo, about fifteen minutes too long. We do not need the dwarves’ dishes cleaning song (lifted from the book) for example.

Once the dwarves and Bilbo set out on their journey, the film really begins to excel. In fact, you could say that after the glacial pace of the first hour, the film almost moves too quickly for the remainder. There are plenty of outstanding set pieces such as an encounter with three trolls or a flashback to an epic battle between the dwarves and orcs. The landscapes of Middle Earth remain amazing to see, and the film retains the visual richness of the Rings trilogy.

The best sequence of the film, the one that matches the level of greatness of the Lord of the Rings is when Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) deep in the mountains. Serkis is outstanding in motion-capture as the wretched creature and the technology has only improved since the prior films, meaning a more convincing Gollum. As big fans of Tolkien know, this sequence has much consequence for the fate of Middle Earth as Bilbo comes into possession of a certain ring.

The filmmakers do expand on the very focused story of the book by using subplots from the other works of Tolkien. This was really the only way they could stretch the narrative of The Hobbit to three films and it is nice to see the connections that occur with the Lord of the Rings because of it. Gandalf is shown to be dealing with more than the dwarves’ quest as rumors of the reappearance of an evil long thought dead arise, and characters like Saruman (Christopher Lee) or Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) make an appearance.

The performances in the film are quality all around with Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in particular deserving recognition. With thirteen dwarves, it is hard to get to know any of them beyond the surface, but they play well as an ensemble of characters and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, plays the role with aplomb, a king without a kingdom and the fate of his people resting on his shoulders. The visual effects are excellent as you would expect, especially the creation of Gollum.

Overall, this is a quality film, that after an uneven opening, really takes off. The performances are on par, and the film retains the visual wonders of Middle Earth. The best thing to say about this film may be that even in its uneven moments, there still is the awe of the world of the movie. Peter Jackson created Middle Earth to such an extent that is feels like seeing an old friend. GRADE: B

Nathan Foster brings you the latest news and highlights of pop culture, from the cinema to the music stage, from Hollywood to Broadway.