Let the piling-on begin. Director Peter Jackson has taken it from all sides for his counterintuitive approach to J.R.R. Tolkien's slight book for children The Hobbit: There And Back Again.
How on Middle Earth could he justify expanding a single book to three movies, each of extra length? What's the deal with 48-frame-per second filming? And did we learn nothing from George Lucas's padding of a beloved franchise?
Well, I'm here to vouch for Jackson, except for the length. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could've been 30 minutes shorter and still conveyed the essence of the original fellowship's dragon-killing, gold-plundering quest.
Maybe one less scene of a baker's-dozen dwarves fighting through thousands of Orcs. And there's that raucous dwarf party in Bilbo's hobbit hole that lasts longer than most keggers.
But given that he has already created the more adult Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings, there was really no way for Jackson to step back and turn hobbitry into the stuff of children's lit. His decision to use outside Tolkien material and create a companion piece out of The Hobbit may rub some the wrong way, but it seems right.
Nonetheless, I watched An Unexpected Journey with lowered expectations. The first unexpected finding was that I didn't mind 48 frames at all. I noticed it in intimate scenes, where it felt like I was watching a play. That's a good thing in my world.
I can't vouch for its effect on 3D, but am informed that it's common for people to walk away forgetting they're wearing glasses. I did likewise (and I hate 3D glasses).
An Unexpected Journey gathers its cast quickly, with an unexpected assemblage of trolls and Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen, looking like the Gandalf the Grey of old), to the consternation of Bilbo (the multi-faceted Martin Freeman).
Freeman's Bilbo has more shades to him than LOTR's eternally-terrified Frodo (Elijah Wood, who has a cameo). He is more annoyed than scared, a reasonable Hobbit, whose non-negotiable offer from Gandalf to become the "burglar" in the dwarves' guest to rescue their dragon-burned city from the Orcs, seems to touch a dormant sense of adventure.
Fans of Smaug the dragon, be warned, he's little more than mentioned yet. After an encounter with the elves (howdy, Elrond) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the movie settles in on the dwarves' Light Brigade-like charge through the Orc-filled Goblin tunnels, and, of course, Bilbo's scary meeting with our old friend Gollum (Andy Serkis, who by now wears that motion-capture suit like a second skin).
Oh, and there's a ring.
For all their antics, the dwarves are a lightly-sketched lot, save for surly leader Thorin Oakenshield (a dashing Richard Armitage), who is haunted by being king of nothing.
For LOTR fans, The Hobbit is more of the same. For those looking for a change-up, its lighter tone works nicely.
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