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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

** SPOILERS **

In The Company Of Dwarves

Bilbo Baggins didn't want to leave home. A bunch of swarthy Dwarves showed up at his front door with no explanation, started eating all of his food, and all agreed: they didn't think Bilbo should go with them either. Where are they going? To a mountain full of gold, sort of like that giant safe Scrooge McDuck keeps all his money in, except this mountain is guarded by a dragon. Dragons love gold, you see. The mountain used to be the awesome Dwarf City, until the dragon showed up, blew smoke (and fire) up their asses and took it from them, banishing the Dwarves into the wilds of Middle-Earth. But they're going to get that mountain of gold back, even though there's only 13 of them, and an old wizard. What difference can one little Hobbit make?

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (part one of three), writer-director Peter Jackson deposits us back into the sometimes cheerful, sometimes terrifying world of Middle-Earth, 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a confusing re-introduction at first, with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) narrating the fall of Dwarf City to the dragon while writing his memoirs to Frodo (Elijah Wood in a walk on) on what turned out to be the same morning Galdalf arrived for Bilbo's party that set in motion the events of the previous trilogy, which is actually the sequel trilogy to this. (Can I have some of that weed Bilbo was smoking?) The Hobbit bounces us back 60 years to where Bilbo is a young Hobbit (a terrific Martin Freeman) and that fateful morning when his life was totally upended by Gandalf arriving to vandalize his door, followed by thirteen Dwarves, and a Call to Adventure.

If you ever watched Lord of the Rings, singled out Gimli the Dwarf and thought, "Gimli! I need to know a lot more about that guy and his peeps", The Hobbit is the trilogy for you. The Hobbit is positively Dwarf-centric. The Dwarves, I remind there are thirteen of them, are an amusing and motley lot, but they're a lot less memorable than the Fellowship of the Ring and its assorted characters of Elves, humans, and Hobbits. Or for that matter, the Seven Dwarves in Snow White. Let's see, who showed up at Bag End? There's the Old One, and the Fat One (though they're all kind of fat), and the One With The Bow, and the One with the Slingshot, and... uh, the rest. 

The important Dwarf to keep track of is their leader and King, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a dark, grim fellow so named because he once cut off the arm of the fearsome Pale Orc while using a piece of oak as a shield. Thorin's the most interesting Dwarf by default, as the last of the line of Dwarf Kings who really hates Elves and doesn't think much of Hobbits, either. There's a climactic moment when Thorin goes dwarfo e orco with his arch rival the Pale Orc, gets his ass handed to him, and it seems like he's going to be Boromir-ed. You can't Boromir Thorin Oakenshield! He's the only interesting Dwarf! (Hey, I never read the book.) I did enjoy Thorin's method of yelling at Bilbo like he's extra furious for Bilbo saving his life before hugging him, all smiles. That Thorin, he's such a prankster when he survives nearly being murdered.

After a prolonged dinner party at Bilbo's house that was rather reminiscent of holiday gatherings with my family (very loud, a lot of food), Bilbo sets off with the Dwarves on the adventure of his lifetime, signing on as their official Burglar. Oh, what sights he sees! Mountains, Gandalf! Mountains that come alive and slug each other into shattered rocks for some reason. Limitless forests, rivers, and caves, lots of caves, as many caves as a Starfleet Officer in Star Trek: The Next Generation will see in his career. The Company of Dwarves find one cave full of treasure and magical swords (Bilbo acquires his glowing blue blade Sting, "more of a letter opener" than a sword) and find themselves trapped in another, an enormous Goblin City that also sits above the cave where Gollum (Andy Serkis) lives. The geography is iffy. There are also cliffs, quite a few cliffs, where Bilbo and friends find themselves in literal cliffhangers, waiting in mortal peril until whatever Deus ex machina Gandalf can conjure next from his pointy hat comes to pass. 

All the while, our noble heroes are chased by Orcs on Wolfback, led by the pissed off, one-armed Pale Orc. There's also talk of an evil Necromancer living in the ruins of a castle somewhere. They encounter a trio of hungry Trolls (Frodo and friends met a Troll in Fellowship of the Ring, and if you've ever wondered what would happen if these Trolls could talk, bonus), battle legions of goblins, and are saved by giant eagles, who fly them to safety on top of another mountain, maybe a thousand miles across from the mountain they're trying to get to. Couldn't those birds have just taken them all the way? There are also rabbits that pull sleds and a little bird who knows a specific Morse Code that wakes up a dragon from its slumber in gold, sort of like how Daffy Duck swims through all the treasure he found in Ali Baba's cave.

While the humans from Lord of the Rings like Boromir and Aragorn haven't been born yet, many of the more long-lived fan favorite characters make welcome appearances. A brief stop over in the Elf City of Rivendell is a good time to get caught up with Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), she of the twisty white gowns, ethereal beauty, and creepy mind readings. I liked that while Gandalf was busy having His Important Elf Meeting, the Dwarves got bored and took off. The white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) also drops by, and it's disconcerting seeing him try to talk Gandalf out of everything he's up to, knowing how buddy-buddy with Sauron he'll turn out later. Waited in vain for Legolas and uh, Liv Tyler, to show up, but maybe in the next movies. While the Elves look like they haven't aged a day, the same can't be said for the wizards, who look more... wizened... than ever, despite this being 60 years before when we saw them last. Perhaps the wizards age backwards like Benjamin Button.

As far as fan favorites characters go, the whole movie in a way builds up to the first (and only?) meeting between Bilbo and poor, pathetic Gollum (Andy Serkis). Bilbo of course acquires the One Ring from Gollum and plays a riddle game with him. Gollum is the prime example of how far computer generated visual effects have come in a decade; his face has never been smoother or more expressive, his body movements are more lifelike. His loincloth is so... cloth-like. Gollum's facial acting is surprisingly expressive and moving; you really feel for the little freak when he realizes he's lost his precious ring and that jerk Bagginses stole it from him.

As breathtaking as some of the vistas look, the action in The Hobbit is more manic and incomprehensible than ever, especially in the all-out havoc in Goblin City when the Dwarves battle, plummet, battle, and plummet some more. The chaos is reminiscent in the worst ways of the excesses of the Star Wars prequels, when there's just so much stuff on the screen and you completely lose track of characters, logic, reality, and how physics would work. Compare the Goblin City sequence to the similar Mines of Moria sequence in Fellowship, and The Hobbit pales in comparison to how meaningful the action, character beats, and the "death" of Gandalf played. Nothing in Goblin City is as memorable, meaningful, or iconic as the "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" moment in Fellowship. The Dwarves' bodies are apparently made of the stuff inside rag dolls, as they miraculously survive multiple falls of thousands of feet and collisions into stone and wood and rock that should have pulverized their bones and made Dwarf stew out of them.

While the action overwhelms, bludgeons and sometimes outright confuses, The Hobbit succeeds in its many, many quieter moments: the times when Bilbo silently weighs his comfortable, predictable life at Bag End against the possibilities of What's Out There; when Thorin bears the pain of the horrors of what has become of his people and swallows the responsibility of restoring their greatness; the exhilaration when Bilbo runs to join the Company ("I'm going on an adventure!"); when both Bilbo and Thorin question whether Bilbo belongs on their quest; or when Gandalf ponders just what is it about that little Hobbit that makes him stake everything on his potential. "Perhaps I am afraid, and he makes me brave," Gandalf concludes, and that little truth about that little Hobbit is where the magic of The Hobbit truly lays.

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