J.R.R. Tolkien published a story for the ages in 1937, revitalizing the traditional quest myth within a fully realized fantastical world and titling it "The Hobbit."
The author didn't stop there, and neither have director Peter Jackson & Co.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, with intricate details rendered in a sometimes jarring format and a story enacted by an exceptional cast. The movie, adapted from the thinnest book in Tolkien's Middle-earth adventures, launches a trilogy and includes concepts from the author's appendices that followed "The Lord of the Rings" books, plus threads and characters from the minds of Mr. Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro.
3 stars = Good
Martin Freeman (above), Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage.
PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
That's a lot of finger painting on a giant canvas, and the many fingerprints show.
Mr. Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was three movies from three epic books, with "The Return of the King" earning 11 Oscars. The first movie of the trilogy at hand reintroduces Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit who emerges from his serene hole in the ground to help 13 Dwarves reclaim their long-lost realm. They scramble from one obstacle to the next and bring us to ... a long way to go before we reach journey's end.
There is magic along the way, particularly in the characterizations.
Martin Freeman enters the frame, and immediately he is the fussy, flustered Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, a contented Hobbit who didn't realize he was yearning for an adventure until presented with one. Mr. Jackson has said no one else would do in the role and now, how could we imagine anyone else?
In the 2 hours and 50 minutes it takes to tell a third of Bilbo's story, with chase scenes and battles aplenty, the film's most precious moments are taken from the Riddles in the Dark passage of the book. The verbal showdown between Bilbo and the creature Gollum -- a creation of Andy Serkis' haunting portrayal and stunning motion-capture effects -- is the best pairing of techno-wizardry and performance in "The Hobbit" part one.
Bilbo and Gollum's confrontation resonates for books and movies to come, and it's breathtaking in the moment as well.
Another piece of movie and acting magic is in the person of 6-foot-4 Richard Armitage, rendered 5 feet and unrecognizable as Thorin Oakenshield, the king in exile and leader of the band of Dwarves gathered by Gandalf -- Sir Ian McKellen, back in a role that he made his own in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
"An Unexpected Journey" is nearly as much Thorin's story as it is Bilbo's, with the dwarf leader's background told in flashbacks as the fellowship seeks the dragon Smaug and the treasure taken from Thorin's ancestors. Whether fighting orcs or goblins or going toe-to-toe with Sir Ian, Mr. Armitage upholds Thorin's regal qualities but doesn't shy from his prideful, bombastic side.
Some characters come and go from the book (or books) with more purpose than others, while some seem to be there as just another obstacle in the way of our heroes.
The questing company spends time in the Elven land of Rivendell and a council referred to in "The Lord of the Rings" allows a welcome feminine touch into the proceedings. Revisiting their roles are Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman; Hugo Weaving as Elrond, ruler of Rivendell; and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, the mightiest and fairest of Elves, as Tolkien described her. It's a single scene that gives meaning to Gandalf's extended disappearance.
That may be TMI for the uninitiated, which begs the question, how much knowledge of a beloved book adapted into a movie is a good thing? In the case of "The Lord of the Rings," when we were introduced to Mr. Jackson's vision of Middle-earth, being able to distinguish Saruman from Sauron and Arwen from Eowyen was quite helpful. In the case of stretching "The Hobbit" into three movies, beginners may be the ones in luck.
Readers may get dizzy trying to recall where they've read about the forest wizard Radagast the Brown (former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy) or the pale Orc known as Azog the Defiler, or the vile goblin leader.
It's a lot to take in while also adjusting to a new visual experience, the much-discussed 48 frames per second presentation, which doubles the usual 24 fps for a heightened clarity down to the tiniest detail. I saw the film in 3D HFR (high frame rate), available on three screens locally, and was blown away by the clarity. This series has an outstanding track record when it comes to film innovation, but for the less adventurous, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is available in 3-D IMAX, 3-D and 2-D formats.
Mr. Jackson and the team at Weta Digital, led by senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri of Aliquippa, treat filmmaking as an evolving art form, overcoming technological obstacles to achieve their goals, whether it's perfecting a motion-capture performance or delivering the most detailed images possible on the big screen (in the case of the 3D HFR, the quality and brightness of the screen matters).
"The Hobbit's" collaborators have taken dual risks by presenting a new experience and tinkering with a book that celebrated 75 years in print this year. If there's a misstep here, it's that they can't seem to let go of their time in Middle-earth, and any Hobbit will tell you that it's impolite to wear out your welcome.
First Published December 13, 2012 5:00 AM