It's hard to believe it's been 11 years since director Peter Jackson introduced filmgoers to Middle-earth with The Fellowship of the Ring. Admittedly, back then his Lord of the Rings trilogy failed to capture my undivided attention, though it did earn my respect. There's no denying the movies remain ground-breaking technical and narrative achievements.
As someone who shies from the fantasy genre to begin with, I simply didn't possess the patience to wade into the complicated backstories of Jackson's films; I haven't watched them in full since I first saw them in the theater. Which is perhaps why I was a bit reticent to see Jackson's follow-up, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, another adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, this time delving into the events prior to the Rings trilogy. I knew what I was getting into -- a cast of (mostly) familiar characters, sweeping views of ever-changing landscapes and menacing beings -- and I took my seat preparing to grumble for the entirety of the film's 169-minute runtime.
It turns out all that foot-dragging was in vain. Despite my preconceived notions, I couldn't have been more wrong about The Hobbit. It proved to be the Tolkien primer I so desperately needed: Not only did it lift the weight of confusion regarding Jackson's originals from my shoulders, but it made me want to re-watch and rediscover them. For a reluctant Tolkien follower like me, The Hobbit is a cinematic light bulb moment.
The journey, which takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, centers upon Hobbit Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman) reluctant teaming with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a group of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). An opening montage describes the historical grounds for the group's journey: The Dwarves were driven from their kingdom Erebor (also known as The Lonely Mountain) by the evil, gold-hoarding dragon Smaug. After years of wandering Middle-earth as homeless drifters, a shift in power is nigh and the scrappy group of Dwarves (plus a wizard and a Hobbit) sets off to dethrone the fire-breathing beast, encountering, and being hunted by, various monstrous creatures along the way.
What proved most helpful for me was experiencing the adventure through Bilbo's untainted eyes, along with flashbacks that shed light on the significance behind why, for example, the Elves and Dwarves don't get along, or seeing the tragic tie to Thorin's family and the villainous Orcs. Traveling the landscape to meet all walks of Middle-earth life in their native habitats, from Trolls to Goblins to Elves, was fascinating, and not a little bit spellbinding on a very childlike level. To be granted unhurried moments to delve into the intricacies could be viewed by some as indulgent, but to me it was essential. I can understand how those more familiar with the material might complain about pacing issues and a stretched-out, bloated plotline, but, aside from some meandering in the Shire during the first act (less dish-washing sing-alongs and more saddling up to hit the road would've been ideal), I was largely riveted. And from the perspective of a relative newbie to the material, everything felt necessary. There's a fair ratio of exposition to action, and Jackson's gorgeously rendered, ever-changing landscapes are a helpful and beautiful realization of the world Tolkien mapped out so intricately in his novel.
In fact, The Hobbit stirred feelings of films I grew up worshiping: Legend, Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. The movie achieves a balance of lightness and wonder amid the dense material, and seems designed to draw in audience members like myself.
The Hobbit being, at its core, an ensemble film, the cast proves a strong and charismatic unit. It's Bilbo's tale, of course, and Freeman is a solid audience surrogate, confidently embodying the unlikely hero and narrator roles. It's also a joy to see McKellen as Gandalf, back in grandfatherly, gray-clad form, spewing one-liners and fortune cookie-like wisdom with a ghost of a wink and smile. Andy Serkis is again a delight as Gollum; his chemistry with Freeman is crackling, and the emotions he elicits from such a complicated character are remarkable. The show-stealer, however, is Armitage, who’s truly the best thing about the film. Playing such a beloved character could make most actors crumble, but he infuses charisma, a sense of pride and strength to Thorin that's simply magnetic.
Ever the innovator, Jackson filmed The Hobbit in 48 frames-per-second 3D, claiming it's a crisper, more realistic visual experience. While I appreciate the sentiment (as well as the risk he's taking to champion a new format), it simply doesn't work with the visuals and themes of The Hobbit. The 48fps actually counteracts all the strengths of Jackson's film: The lack of motion blur during action sequences makes every move look choppy, the make-up is extremely noticeable, the CGI characters look wildly unnatural and the overall aesthetic of the film is essentially that of a made-for-TV movie. Additionally, where the 48fps is most seamless -- the wide landscape shots -- is where the 3D proves most invasive, as it dulls the colors. I pulled my glasses up multiple times simply to experience the play of shadow and light or full spectrum of color on a more authentic level. The idea of hyper-realism that Jackson wants to achieve with 48fps seems even more counterproductive when you consider that Middle-earth is a truly otherworldly place. This is a fantasy film, and while Jackson has painted an encompassing canvas, the juxtaposition of the themes with the movie's technology really read as a miss. While I clearly enjoyed the film, I found myself doing so despite the use of 48fps; I'd like to see it again in 24fps.
Although your level of devotion to Tolkien's books and to Jackson's previous trilogy is likely a litmus test for how you'll react to The Hobbit, the film is a fantastic way to introduce someone to Middle-earth. It's the infectiously exciting, good-humored, beautifully conceived primer, and in some ways the reboot, that Jackson's full catalog of big-screen adaptations deserves. I can’t wait to see how he handles the next two.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens today nationwide.