Movie review: 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

The Fresno BeeDecember 13, 2012 

Sometimes the smallest among us can do great deeds, Gandalf the Grey tells us.

Pretty inspiring words from someone so tall.

For decades, huge numbers of readers -- especially younger ones -- have flocked to that sentiment. Hobbits are certainly small, after all.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is anything but.

Peter Jackson's first installment of a planned trilogy of the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien novel is as grandiose as any of the director's "Lord of the Rings" film behemoths -- which weren't exactly dainty in terms of scale and gravitas, if you recall. With Howard Shore's popular score playing almost constantly in the background and a host of familiar characters -- Gandalf, Galadriel, the always slightly malevolent Saruman, among others -- to catch up with in a sort of meet-the-younger-version prequel twist, this newest Tolkien film experience is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the "Lord of the Rings" series.

Which means, in this case, spectacular action sequences, amazing special effects, a sturdy attention to detail and a committed fidelity to the source material. And talk about iconic moments. This first "Hobbit" is when you get to see the famed exchange of riddles between the rattled Bilbo Baggins and the lispy Gollum, along with the first glimpse of the ring that changes the world.

It'll make Tolkien fans quite happy, I'm sure. (By the way, I saw the standard 24 frame-per-second in 3D version at a preview screening, not the much-discussed 48 frame-per-second version offered at selected theaters, including Fresno's Edwards Fresno Stadium 22 & IMAX.)

Still, while I think it's an impressive outing, something about this "Hobbit" keeps me from being downright exhilarated.

Is it too long? Perhaps. Jackson tosses in big chunks of exposition and back story, and a lingering light-hearted sequence in the first part of the film in the comfy home of Bilbo (a wonderful Martin Freeman) -- in which Gandalf (Ian McKellen in expected fine form) arrives to organize an expedition of dwarves seems to go on forever.

The antics are fun, and so is the way Freeman gives us a glimpse of Bilbo's inner struggle. Does he play it safe and stay home? Or embark on what is likely the only chance at adventure in his life?

Perhaps my resistance has something to do with the rag-tag crew that Bilbo finally decides to join, led by the sturdy dwarf Thorin (an unmemorable Richard Armitage) and consisting mostly of characters with facial hair so elaborately coiffed that it's a wonder a full-time sideburn trimmer isn't part of the group. They're boisterous, nice-enough chaps, but they also seem generic in this movie.

As Gandalf and Thorin lead the group to their goal -- the dwarves want to reclaim the vaults of the legendary Lonely Mountain, which was sacked by the dragon Smaug -- they meet all sorts of obstacles in the way in typical Tolkien fashion.

Jackson revels in these confrontations, which range from the silly (a sequence with three hungry mountain trolls) to the awe-inspiring (when steep, craggy mountains shift into dueling rocky giants).

While the computer-generated effects shot outside in natural daylight are slightly harder to believe in, some of the cavernous dark interiors are spectacular. The vast lair of the goblins, for example, led by the revolting Great Goblin (voiced by an impish Barry Humphries), whose drooping chin suggests an enormous diseased testicle, is a wonderland of rickety efficiency, its wooden suspension bridges and teetering scaffolds setting the scene for the movie's best chase sequences.

In the end, I think the reaction to "The Hobbit" will be intensely personal. That's the case for me when I contemplate my own memories of the book, which I read in the fifth or sixth grade. (I think that lots of kids opt for "The Hobbit" first simply because it's shorter and less daunting than the "Lord of the Rings.") There was something more intimate, more doable, about "The Hobbit" than the "Rings" trilogy.

To put into kid-centric architectural terms, "The Hobbit" always seemed more the nine-story Palomar Hotel in Santa Cruz, while each installment of the "Rings" series made me think more of the 52-story Bank of America tower in San Francisco.

But that's not this movie. "The Hobbit" is as tall and towering as the rest. And once we get through the two installments following this one, we'll have quite the collection of skyscrapers.

Movie review

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," rated PG-13 for violent battle scenes and scary images). Stars Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage. Directed by Peter Jackson. Running time: 169 minutes. Grade: B Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews

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