Perhaps no English speaking writer's works have been more lovingly translated into film then of J.R.R. Tolkien. In Peter Jackson's trilogy based on Lord of the Rings, he literally got an entire nation to pitch in to bring the fantastical tale of an ancient evil to the silver screen.
The results were some of the best fantasy films ever made ("Return of the King" was the first fantasy film to win for best picture), and "Fellowship of the Ring" might just be the best film ever.
Flash forward nearly a decade and Jackson returns with his take on "The Hobbit," the children's book which led him to write the much more adult themed Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn't have a lot of hope for a great flick -- despite wining the Oscar for "Return of the King," Jackson stumbled to the finish with the theatrical version, it being the weakest film of the three. Add to it the just rotten "The Lovely Bones" released by Jackson in 2009 and I thought maybe he had lost it. After all, fame and riches rarely help artists ...
How wrong I was -- turns out he just needed a break as "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a fantastic piece of film making, one that knows how great the original trilogy was, yet never relies on its success to tell its tale. Jackson again proves himself the smartest guy in film by doing two things in the film: One, he forgets that he's been knighted and won Oscar gold and just sets out to make a action packed film, and two, he doesn't put the entire story on the title character. This is a mistake the cartoon version made, and while it's an easy one the make, it would have been a disaster for this film.
Instead, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" turns out to be more about the fall of the dwarven kingdoms then it is about anyone named Baggins. Right from the start, Jackson stays light on his feet -- lots of little jokes (like when Gandalf looked in a window with a little musical stab -- very funny), and lots of little cameos that can't help but please the millions of fans of the original trilogy.
As Jackson gleefully takes us down memory lane, he never becomes nostalgic. Unlike the Star Wars prequel trilogy, "The Hobbit" never tries to live up to its older brothers. Instead, it just plows forward, one tale of adventure at a time, set piece after set piece until it become one huge action film. It hints at the dark things to come, but never lets that future plot line get in the way of having fun. And in the dwarves, we have Klingon-like rouges, who at first seem like asses, but we learn there is a method to their madness (or grossness as may be the case). This movie never tries to be something it could never be, and that might be the best decision Jackson made in pre-production.
Jackson -- who might just be the foremost Tolkien scholar on the planet -- knows exactly where to expand the story (like with the wizard Radagast) and knows how to do it (his characterization of old Radagast is pitch perfect, albeit nasty). This knowledge let's him dance around the possible pitfalls of the book. Instead of spending half the movie with the first encounter between Bilbo and Gollum, Jackson simply gets to the meat of it (Gollum is insane and could easily kill Bilbo, but Bilbo is darn tricksy), and moves on. Might seem like a simple decision, but remember the huge set they had to build and all the tech to make Gollum even more real. A lesser director would have spent an hour on the scene (it is, after all, about the Ring of Power), but Jackson smartly realizes that to do so would be to slow down the story and that none of the characters know that the ring is THE ring.
The effects are amazing in part because while they're all CG; they try to look like they used models. Neat. Costumes, make-up, Gollum, the weapons -- all of them are wonderfully done. The music, when new, is great, and the old music is used at all the right times. Which is what you'd expect, but George Lucas spent a lot of money on "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones' and look at that mess. The camera work and editing is absolutely top notch. Jackson and his crew are true masters of the art from a technical point of view.
And of course, he has Ian Mckellen there to guide the whole thing along. McKellen is simply perfect in this role, and it's so fun to see him in the robes again. Martin Freeman is suitably fine as Bilbo, although his heavy lifting is still to come. But even with McKellen and the other returning cast members of Lord of the Rings, in the end it's Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield who steals the film. Here again Jackson knows where to butter his bread -- Armitage is simply wonderful as the grim dwarven king trying to do the impossible. Armitage shoulders most of the load -- in the end it's his movie -- and that's a good thing.
Even better is the director.
BOTTOM LINE: 4 "Jackson's back" stars out of 5
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