By Mark Saldana 

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Director Peter Jackson has returned to take movie audiences back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth and it feels pretty darn good.  After proving himself a master filmmaker with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Middle Earth movie universe really doesn’t belong in anyone else’s hands.  It is evident that Jackson has a profound love for this world and has every intention of giving it the proper cinematic treatment.  That said; the director has made some interesting choices with his version of Tolkien’s first entry into this universe, The Hobbit. Perhaps interesting is putting it too mildly with his bewildering choice of shooting the film at the frame rate of 48 frames per second and the decision to make a trilogy out of one novel.  Nevertheless, as flawed as some of these choices are, it truly is a treat to revisit Middle Earth during an era that pre-dates the events of LOTR and it feels great to have Jackson as the guide.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins the tale of conservative hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), which the Lord of the Rings trilogy only briefly referenced.  Like most hobbits of The Shire, Bilbo enjoys a quiet, peaceful and simple life.  When wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan) attempts to recruit the stubborn and willful hobbit for an adventure, he fearfully declines.  A rag tag group of dwarves, led by skilled warrior Thorin (Richard Armitage), plans to reclaim their kingdom and treasure which the monstrous dragon Smaug took from them.  Bilbo, after more consideration, reluctantly agrees to journey with the dwarves, but certainly questions his decision along the way, as he experiences some dangerous and treacherous encounters with trolls, goblins, and a creepy creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis).

Once again working with writers Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, along with Guillermo DelToro, Jackson skillfully adapts the prequel story to the Lord of the Rings, but does stretch it a bit too long.  When I first heard that Jackson had planned to make two films out of the novel, I thought this decision made sense, but when it was announced that he would extend the story into a third film, I strongly questioned this logic.  Therein lies the flaw with the movie’s screenplay.  A few sequences in the film run on too long.  The movie could have really used some thriftier editing.  Honestly, this first installment could have efficiently and effectively told its story in a solid two hours.  Actually, that’s where I can see how a trilogy could be made of the novel.  Three movies, each clocking at 120 minutes makes perfect sense.  Three movies, running three hours long, really stretches out the novel way too thinly.  If Jackson and his writers could make three movies out of three lengthy books, why are they making three movies out of one?

The material is appropriately much lighter in tone this time.  The era takes place prior to Sauron’s re-emergence; therefore, the world exists more peacefully.  Despite the long windedness of the presentation, the movie still provides much entertainment in the form of delightful humor and thrilling action.  When the film does take off on all cylinders, it certainly is one hell of a ride.  The whole evolution and development of the Bilbo character, from quiet and reserved hobbit to courageous and cunning adventurer is a joy to behold.  So, in spite of the issues, the movie does have much to offer in terms of entertainment.  Fans of the novel should be quite pleased.

Jackson and his casting department have assembled a quite pleasing group of talent for this prequel, along with some familiar faces from the previous movies.  I particularly enjoyed Martin Freeman as the younger Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, a strapping, masculine warrior of a dwarf.  Returning cast members include Hugo Weaving as elf leader Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf and the immensely talented voice/motion capture actor Andy Serkis as Gollum.  It truly made me happy to see the LOTR actors reprise their roles among the new talent assembled for this movie.

Now, as for Jackson’s highly questionable decision to shoot the film in 48 frames per second and his desire to present it this way, I cannot say I am a fan.  The screening I attended presented the movie this way and it felt like watching a lower budget play shot on video, or worse yet a soap opera.  48 fps really takes away that soft and warm cinematic feel that most movies, especially Jackson’s LOTR, have.  Over the weekend, I revisited the LOTR trilogy and the 48fps version of The Hobbit does not match visually at all.  It really felt like living in an alternate universe where the Lord of the Rings movies achieved little or no success and the producers had to settle for making a low budget television mini-series as a follow-up.  I will note that the format did add to the 3D effects, but the overall experience was ultimately disappointing.  On a more positive note, according to a colleague who saw the film in the 24fps format, this version of the movie actually matches with the look of the Lord of the Rings films.

So regardless of writing and directing issues that inhibit this film from achieving the excellence of the Lord of the Rings, the movie should provide for a fun, albeit lengthy, time at the theater, especially for Tolkien fans.  I suppose that, on the positive side, some of the  meandering stretches of exposition will provide audience members with the opportunities to make trips to the restroom or refill on drinks and snacks.  I will strongly recommend this movie for the fans, but do believe that casual enthusiasts will probably experience boredom with this latest visit to Middle Earth.  As for the 48fps experience, I will only recommend it for people who have an overwhelming curiosity about it. Otherwise, I feel that Jackson’s experiment does not fare too well here.  If he really wanted to improve the presentation and look of his movie, he should have gone with 70mm. Now that would have been gorgeous!

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