I never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, but when the opportunity came to see a screening of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” I jumped at the chance. I was dazzled not so much by the story, but by director Peter Jackson’s epic handling of complex material and myriad characters.
The almost three-hour movie (price tag $270 million) is like going on a roller coaster ride over and over. The narrative is somewhat similar to “Lord of the Rings.” The good people get displaced by bad, and they try to salvage what they had through an epic journey.
Elijah Wood, who appears briefly as Frodo, was good. But Martin Freeman in the titular role as the young Bilbo Baggins is spot-on perfect. Freeman brings a more present-day clarity to the proceedings, which, for the record, is set some 60 years before Rings.
That’s when Bilbo was recruited by the Grey Wizard Gandalf (the always terrific Ian McKellen) for a journey of both spirit and body. Richard Armitage is the leader of the displaced village, much the same way Viggo Mortensen was in the Rings series.
The first hour of the movie sets the stage. In hour two, the action is positively spellbinding. Popping in for a much needed cameo is the stunning Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee. He reprises his role as Saruman, who if memory serves, becomes the ultimate bad guy.
Gollum is brilliantly essayed by Andy Serkis. His motion-capture performance as the creature is striking and amazingly compelling. You cannot take your eyes off him.
In one scene that I’m still thinking about, he introduces and then loses the golden ring to Bilbo, who immediately senses its power of invisibility. Putting in on he easily escapes Gollum. As my two friends asked, and I thought … how’d he get the ring in the first place?
Perhaps we’ll discover in the following movies. The last half hour sets numerous cliff-hangers in place for installments that will no doubt be answered in the remaining two movies.
Jackson introduces a controversial new technology with this initial epic — in about 400 US theaters. It will be projected at 48 frames per second, twice the rate that’s been the standard since talkies were introduced in the late 1920s. Listings refer to it as HFR, for “high frame rate.”
To me, the rapid motion seemed sometimes uneven and jerky, especially in the longer shots.
My friend commented that the overall look was very similar to hi-resolution video rather than film. That said, any new innovation in a film of this magnitude has got to be studied and understood before rendering a final conclusion.
All in all, a definite must-see, for believers and non-believers alike.