Monday, December 17, 2012

Good Thing, Small Package - “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”


Movie Review by Jack Silbert
And so we return to Middle Earth, back to an ancient time when Liv Tyler was still famous. I had been genuinely looking forward to The Hobbit until about two and a half weeks ago. That’s when my friend Alex explained that this was not only an approximately three-hour film, but just the first installment in another trilogy. Wait wait wait, wasn’t The Hobbit always Tolkien for beginners? A simpler tale? Was I ready to devote another sizeable chunk of my life to these small people with swords in a magical land?


Ian McKellen as Gandalf
The truth is, I never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings when I was a kid, and I didn’t even watch the very popular animated version of The Hobbit that aired on TV when I was 8. I don’t know, I liked reading The Hardy Boys and Doctor Dolittle and stuff like that. Still, as an adult, I’d been swept up in the previous The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (definitely stronger than the similarly plotted Harry Potter films in my humble opinion). And I’m a big Peter Jackson fan, even if I had been very curious to see what deposed director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, etc., and given one of the screenwriting credits here) would’ve done with Tolkien’s world.

Andy Serkis as Gollum
Jackson has definitely pulled me back in. This is tremendous filmmaking—one of the year’s top movies—and now I can’t wait for part two (the unfortunately titled Desolation of Smaug due in 2013). It had been nine years since The Return of the King and my recollections were a little fuzzy. There was a wizard and an elf and a lot of fighting… wait, was that Lord of the Rings or the old multi-player arcade game Gauntlet? But I had no trouble immersing myself in The Hobbit. The plot really is straightforward enough for children of any age. Bilbo Baggins, our titular hobbit, is chilling out at home. He’s just settling in for supper when a bunch of dwarfs barge in, and there are more than seven of them. Our old wizard buddy Gandalf explains that the dwarfs (whoops, sorry, Tolkien spells it “dwarves”) were long ago kicked out of their kingdom. Now it’s time to snatch it back, and Gandalf has recruited Bilbo to join them on the adventure.

Martin Freeman (left) as Bilbo
Starring as Bilbo is Martin Freeman, best known as Tim from the original British version of The Office. (Tim = Jim in the U.S. version.) Freeman also starred in the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, another book that a whole bunch of my friends read when I was a teenager but I never did. (So what’s next, Martin? A Stephen King film?) And just as Tim/Jim would glance over at the camera as if to say “do you believe this,” Bilbo represents us, the viewer, and especially the kids in the audience. Because wouldn’t it be great fun to go on an exciting quest but, you know, maybe we shouldn’t, it would be easier to stay at home and besides, these stronger guys are a lot more qualified. So it’s really excellent to have Bilbo as our guide and stand-in, and maybe, just maybe … well, no spoilers but as Shakespeare said, “Some have greatness thrust upon them.”

In further avoidance of spoilers, I won’t mention the various characters and actors who reappear from the original trilogy. But suffice to say, it felt really great to see them again, like a homecoming, and it connects the two trilogies nicely.

Hugo Weaving as Elrond
For a while I wondered why this was rated PG-13. It seemed pretty innocent and sweet. But there is a fair amount of violence (swords, bows-and-arrows, etc.), some totally cool but scary-looking creatures (including a bad guy who looks like Voldemort on steroids), and things do get a wee bit dark. However, I feel that most kids will be able to handle this, especially if they love action. And oh boy is there action. Though it’s 2 hours, 49 minutes long, the movie never really drags. We go from one awesome setting to another. (The 3-D version has some fun in-your-face moments, but is really worthwhile for the enhanced sense of depth.) There are thrills and riddles and secret watermarks and fast rabbits and much comedy and a very clever use of a ladder.

If there is a slower section of the film, it’s in the beginning. But I think it’s important for kids to meet and get accustomed to the different characters and also get a real sense of the comfortable home life that Bilbo is giving up. His unexpected heroism on this unexpected journey should be what ultimately resonates with young viewers. At one point, Gandalf is asked why on (middle) earth he’s brought Bilbo along. The wizard explains that though some believe that power is what’s needed, he disagrees. It’s the simple things and everyday acts of kindness that have any chance of keeping evil at bay. We’ve never needed that lesson more than we do right now.



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