THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY"
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey available on Blu-ray Combo Pack, Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack and 2-disc DVD Special Edition on 3/19!
I have to admit that I felt a twinge of disappointment when I heard Peter Jackson was making The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Adapting another JRR Tolkien work after his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed like a futile attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice. I was even more disappointed when I found out that he was expanding this shorter book into three movies. When all is said and done, Jackson will have six three-hour films based on Tolkien's material to his credit. My feeling was that, if he was going to do it at all, he should have just made one film and then moved onto something new. Now that I've seen The Hobbit, my cynicism has subsided a little bit. Trying to stretch the story into multiple installments is still a colossal mistake, because the picture is a lot of build-up to very little payoff. Still, the director brings enough of the fun and visual spectacle of the LOTR trilogy to make it worth seeing, in spite of its undeniable flaws.
Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit happily residing among his books and his garden in Bag End. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up at his home unannounced, with a band of dwarves in tow. They want his help retrieving a treasure from the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor that was seized by a vicious dragon known as Smaug. Bilbo is reluctant to help, but the dwarves eventually convince him to come along. Their journey to Erebor puts them in confrontation with goblins and Orcs and other deadly creatures. A few familiar faces from the Rings movies pop up along the way, including Gollum (Andy Sirkis, in all his motion-captured glory). En route, Bilbo begins to learn the meaning of bravery and heroism.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is like 90 minutes of flirting, an hour of foreplay, and no sex. In other words, it's fun, but not entirely satisfying. In book form, Tolkein's story is a little over 300 pages. You could tell the entire tale in a movie that runs two hours + change. For reasons not entirely known, Jackson made the decision to stretch the material out, adding supplementary elements, and you feel the effects of that throughout. The introductory section – in which Bilbo meets the dwarves, decides to join them, and starts the trek – takes an hour-and-a-half to cover. There are interesting/exciting/funny scenes along the way, but also a lot of moments that are excessively talky. Characters make long speeches to explain things that could be covered with a couple lines of dialogue. This gives the movie a weird stop-and-start rhythm.
In the last hour, they finally reach their first destination: the goblin tunnels, which must be passed through in order to reach Erebor. Here, The Hobbit picks up some steam, with a series of back-to-back action sequences. Then we get what we know is coming: the “pause.” (I won't call it an ending.) Instead of a proper climax, complete with resolution, the film provides a moment designed to let us know that the things we really want to see are still one to two years away. The characters essentially look off into the distance and say, “Yep, we gotta go all the way over there.” That approach worked with the Lord of the Rings series because it was based on three separate but connected books. The Hobbit, on the other hand, truly does feel like a normal-sized story being stretched way too far.
The saving grace is that Jackson knows how to deliver an extraordinary set piece. The Hobbit has several. Bilbo's encounter with a sneezing mountain troll is terrific, as is a brilliantly-staged sequence involving two warring rock monsters. The extended finale, which takes Bilbo and crew into the goblin tunnels where they are met with great resistance, is a grand piece of fantasy cinema. Throughout, the visual effects are stunning, and the movie's use of 3D is appropriate, giving depth and scale to both characters and locations. The action sequences are so entertaining that they help mitigate the needlessly elongated plot and the overly wordy soliloquies.
Martin Freeman also deserves credit for helping hold everything together. He's a superb Bilbo, all wide-eyed and nervous. The actor makes Bilbo's transition from a shy loner to a reluctantly brave hero credible. Ian McKellen again proves a perfect fit for the stately Gandalf, while Andy Sirkis gets a honey of a scene as Gollum, by turns creepy and humorous. The actors playing the dwarves take measures to make their characters distinct, which is also an asset as the movie goes on.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not as good as any one of the Lord of the Rings movies. As a single stand-alone film, it might have been. Trying to drag the story out weighs things down a bit. Nonetheless, I enjoyed enough about it to accept it on its own admittedly compromised terms.
( out of four)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes in a Blu-Ray combo pack, a Blu-Ray 3D combo pack, and a 2-disc DVD special edition on March 19. It is also available for digital download.
The Blu-Ray has over two hours of outstanding bonus features, located on a second BD disc. They are presented as “video diaries” that span the production and offer valuable behind-the-scenes insight into the making of the film. “Start of Production” looks at the preparations Jackson and crew made in order to complete this massive undertaking. Four segments on location scouting explore how remote areas of New Zealand were chosen for filming, and how necessary technology (satellite dishes, wires, port-a-potties, etc.) were brought in. We also see footage of a flood that occurred a mere day after filming wrapped at one location, completely submersing it in water. Most interestingly, it is revealed that the production returned to the farm that doubled for “Hobbiton” in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The farmer who owns the land had been giving LOTR-themed tours. Because of this, permanent materials were used for the exterior sets on The Hobbit so that he can more fully carry on his mission to celebrate this popular cinematic series.
The filming of the hobbit party is covered in “Shooting Block One,” allowing us to observe the camaraderie of the actors, while “Stone Street Studios” gives a tour of Jackson's facility, showing what goes on in each department. “Wrap of Principal Photography” offers footage of the cast's visit to Comic-Con, during which they drummed up massive fan interest in the film. You'll also see Jackson's touching speech to his dedicated crew on the last day of filming. “Post Production Overview,” meanwhile, follows sound and digital effects crews working round the clock to get The Hobbit done in time for its world premiere. (The flick was completed two days beforehand.) That premiere is covered in “Wellington World Premiere,” and it's fascinating. Massive promotional items were constructed around the city in advance of the movie's release, including the construction of the longest red carpet in history.
Personally, my favorite of the video diaries is “Filming in 3D,” which finds Jackson explaining how 3D is shot and discussing his ultimately controversial decision to shoot at 48 frames per second. We also learn that much of the concept art was drawn in 3D to help Jackson plan for shooting. A sample illustration is presented onscreen, which you can see in 3D if you have an old pair of red/blue-lensed glasses. It's a very cool effect.
The Blu-Ray additionally features a handful of teasers/trailers for both The Hobbit and its related videogames. An UltraViolet copy of the movie is included in the pack as well.
On Sunday, March 24 at 3:00 PM Eastern/12:00 PM Pacific, Peter Jackson will host a live first look at the next chapter in the series, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The event will be streamed live, with an edited version archived on the trilogy's official website. In order to receive access, you will need to get the UltraViolet code by purchasing the DVD or Blu-Ray. For more information, visit The Hobbit website. Fans will not want to miss what's sure to be an exciting first look.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is very impressive and thorough when it comes to supplementary material. Everything is very well produced. I devoured it in one sitting. Picture and sound quality on both discs are typically excellent.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. The running time is 2 hours and 49 minutes.
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