Judge David Johnson is going on an adventure!
It was inevitable. After Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings Trilogy brought in enough gold to make even the most frugal of dwarves foam at the mouth, Tolkien's original Middle-Earth epic was bound to hit the silver screen. So here we are, more than ten years removed from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and the book that started it all gets its shot at Kiwi immortality.
Facts of the Case
Long before the events of War of the Ring, one of the most powerful kingdoms of Middle-Earth was brought to its stumpy little knees, when the fearsome arch-dragon Smaug torched the dwarven stronghold at the Lonely Mountain scattering its inhabitants to the wind. Years later, Gandalf (Ian McKellen, X-Men) shows up at the doorstep of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, Hot Fuzz) with a tantalizing offer: join him and a company of these evicted dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home, bounce Smaug, and leave your doilies be.
Reluctant at first, Bilbo is swayed by the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the not-so-subtle gravitas of the dwarves and their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, Frozen). What lies ahead? The usual goblin scum, gluttonous trolls, condescending elves, and a kick-ass New Zealand travelogue.
During the run-up to this film, my anticipation level was hovering at a flat zero. I knew I was going to see The Hobbit, but felt it was almost a compulsory assignment, something I had to watch if I considered myself even a passing Rings guy. The irony? I'm a huge Rings guy, with Jackson's original trilogy lodged firmly in my top ten list of all time. Yet, for some reason, the prequel failed to get a rise out of me and it was only at the beseeching of a friend did I drag myself to the theater to get it over with.
It took all of five minutes for my cynicism to dissolve into a vapor of Hobbiton's finest pipe smoke. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is my favorite film of 2012, in a year that saw both Marvel's The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Not too shabby, especially if you subscribe to my film genre worldview, which if you don't you really should.
I was surprised and delighted by my return trip to Middle-Earth, proving once again that Peter Jackson was made for building experiences in this world. Or for making movies about vomit-eating alien fast food entrepreneurs. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is great for many reasons, but the big one is how seamlessly it fits within the overall big-screen Tolkien framework. This is a decidedly lighter film than any of the previous three, with more honest-to-goodness levity baked into its runtime than the entirety of its heavy duty successors. And yet Jackson deftly balances this lightheartedness with explicit hints of doom that waits on the horizon. Gandalf knows something is up in the world of Sauron and this suspicion drives his quest with the dwarves. Along the way, there are meaty forebears to the nastiness to come: giant spiders, dying plants, a shot of the Necromancer, and a surprise cameo midway through.
At its heart, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is about Bilbo Baggins and his sojourn with an unusual company of dwarves. The events of the film fit snugly into the overall saga (and I suspect will boast even more synergy in the coming sequels), but stands as its own beast with its own characters and I love everyone involved. Bilbo is great, anchored by Martin Freeman delivering the best performance outside of Ian McKellen in the entire franchise. He's a fish out of water, to be sure, but Freeman injects charm, bravery, and awkwardness, making him by far my favorite Hobbit. Speaking of McKellen, he continues his flawless wizardry, an effort that's trickier than it appears, seeing he has to reset Gandalf to pre-One-Ring status.
But it's the dwarf crew that steals the show. They excel primarily as a collective since a) there's so many of them, and b) I don't know all their names. They're funny, rambunctious, and Jackson gives enough screen time to a select few to build intimacy with the viewer. Ironically, the least charismatic is Thorin Oaksenshield, the alpha drawf of this series. He's gutty, angst-ridden, and great with a sword, but for the duration of the first film he's essentially in full-on glowering mode. Here's hoping for a more dynamic hero in the films that follow, which I await with breathless anticipation.
Despite the three-hour runtime, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey moves briskly, is superbly paced, and ends on a note that made me crave more. That is no small feat. In fact, I couldn't even look back and point out the bloat. Everything in the cut makes sense and serves a purpose, including the Radagast the Brown stuff, which is not nearly as lengthy as conventional wisdom seems to indicate.
With regards to the Blu-ray presentation, we all know an extended cut with a sackful of extras is forthcoming, but for what this is—the theatrical cut with a batch of previously seen video blogs—The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Blu-ray) delivers the A/V goods. Both sound and video are flawless, its 2.40:1/1080p transfer bringing out a positively reference quality display. New Zealand continues to look stunning and I find the enhanced resolution improving upon the already impressive CGI. This is glorious stuff to behold and completely up to the gold standards set by its Middle-Earth HD brethren. Perfect marks for the audio, a rarely seen legitimate DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track that pumps out Howard Shore's magnificent score and cleanly renders the mirth and mayhem of dwarf-on-goblin slaughter. A second discs holds the extras: 10 production video blogs (totaling two+ hours), a brief featurette on filming in New Zealand, a collection of trailers, and access to an upcoming online sneak peek of the next film. Not bad, but you know they're holding back. A standard def DVD copy, iTunes copy, and UltraViolet download are also available.
Right, so this is why I love movies. Bring on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Not Guilty. I'm going on an adventure!
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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