Unlike Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings Trilogy, a trio of movies based on a trio of dense books, the Hobbit trilogy is based on... a single book. Not only that, but it is a single book that had kids as the intended audience. It's as though Jackson took any and all criticism about LOTR to heart. "Why were certain scenes and characters and plots left out???" the fans must have cried. To appease the purists, it seems this time that Jackson left out, well, nothing. Every far off stare, every transition scene of trudging across fields, bogs, or mountaintops, every beastie, every battle, every mournful song song with a faux-Celtic style—I'm pretty sure it is all in here. I even heard that this first film is based only on Chapters 1 through 6 of Tolkein's 16-chapter novel! Anyways, you get the idea.
Also, Jackson shoots in 3D this time—not only that, I got to see it in the much-trumpeted 48 frames-per-second (vs. the standard 24fps) version. Does this make a difference? Well, yes... but not necessarily in a good way (in my humble opinion). The indoor scenes looked... weird. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but my companion said, "It looks like a teleplay!" Yes! That's exactly it! It made me think of the 80s, when my parents watched filmed versions of British stage plays starring people like Ian Holm on PBS. It may have looked real... but perhaps TOO real. It didn't have the richness and grit I expect from film. It looked like they may just be in a room with me, and that's no fun. It was actually distractingly strange looking. Once the action moves outside, it is fine. In the end, I found myself wanting to watch the film in the comfort of 2D instead.
Now for the movie!
The film begins right where LOTR started. Elderly hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm looking kind of felty in 3D) is writing his memoirs, intending to tell Frodo (Elijah Wood) about his past adventures. Flashback to young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) as he is paid a visit by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) who informs him he has been chosen to go on a great adventure. The next thing Bilbo knows, he has a hobbit-house full of Dwarves ransacking his food supply. Once the exiled Dwarf King Thorin (brooding Richard Armitage) shows up, the proceedings take a more somber tone. Long story short: the Dwarves were violently driven out of their mountain homeland by the greedy dragon Smaug, and dammit, they are going to take it back!
As the movie clocks in at almost three hours, it surprisingly takes most of the first third of the film for the group to even leave the hobbit house. Finally, they get on their way, and the expected adventure after adventure ensues. LOTR fans should be pleased, as I think The Hobbit picks up the same tone of adventure mixed with comedy and peril of the original movies, with its fantastic settings and even more fantastical characters. There are comic-relief trolls, giant eagles, scary Orcs, really cool rock-monsters, and more.
Expect some familiar faces from the other films to make cameos, which caused ripples of excitement in the audience. One of my new favorite characters was Radagast the brown wizard (Sylvester McCoy), who prefers the company of gentle woodland creatures, and has crusted bird shit dripping down the side of his face every time he is on screen. Awesome. Fan favorite Gollum (Andy Serkis) shows up about two-thirds through the story, and rips the scene right from the appealing Freeman. Though their riddle-off seems to go on a little bit long (and I couldn't understand half of what Gollum was saying), I still love looking at him and his ridiculously expressive face. Finally, can I just say that Elf goddess Cate Blanchett's chemistry with Gandalf is absolutely crackling? I wanted them to clasp hands and run off to live out their seemingly eternal lives in Rivendale together.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, despite its long length and its exhaustive attention to detail, doesn't manage to introduce (so far) as many standout characters as the original trilogy. There are a lot of Dwarves. A LOT. Richard Armitage's Thorin is the obvious new hottie of the cast, but he doesn't get much to do except brood and look pissed off from his low vantage point. Freeman does the best he can with his bumbling Bilbo, and I expect his character to grow with his adventures. But the warm heart of the film continues to be shouldered by the fabulous Ian McKellan. Every time he is on screen, he may as well have a Halo of Good around him. Mckellan (and Serkis) continue to stand out in a series where visuals often trump emotional investment. Still, I'll be awaiting Part Two to see where Jackson's vision takes us.
I fully expect a variety of ever-extended versions of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be released in a multitude of formats in the near and far future. But as the film rushes to home video in this intial release, they have managed to cram enough extras to keep the casual viewer entertained. Included in the Combo Pack are over two hours of video blog entries that were created during the filming of the movie. If you are a hardcore obsessed fan, you may have already watched these 10 production videos online already, as they were released online as teasers in anticipation of the film's release. If you haven't, there are a lot of really interesting behind the scenes revelations about the film production, locations, makeup, and 3D. For instance, I found it fascinating that artists not only still did production sketches with pencil and pad, but sometimes artists sat side by side, one coloring storyboard frame in blue pencil, and another in red. Overlap these two drawings, put on the old-school red and blue 3D glasses, and you have a 3D production drawing! There is also a nice featurette about New Zealand filming sites from the film (with maps for the hardcore!), a whole bunch of movie trailers, and (yes) video game trailers.