So back to Middle-earth it is in the company of Peter Jackson and his wizardly cohorts from “The Lord of the Rings” sagas. And thank the gods of Middle-earth that after all the legal wrangling Jackson did emerge as the new journey’s leader.
It would be hard to imagine any other captain. The sole exception would be Guillermo Del Toro, whose name remains in the screenplay credits along with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson.
As written by master fable-maker J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place 60 years earlier than the tale told in “LOTR.” But on film it feels like 60 years later.
Shooting in 3D at 48 frames per second for release in what Warner Bros. calls High Frame Rate 3D, as well as other formats (including Imax which sounds forbidding), Jackson and his team achieve a sparkling cinematic quality much better than the earlier movie series.
Whether in the sunny land of the Hobbit’s beloved Shire or the dark places of Goblin tunnels and dense forests, the scenes have a crispness that allows you to see the tiniest details. The 3D only adds to the other-worldliness of these magical places.
Then too the story feels not so dark and militaristic as “LOTR,” not so Wagnerian, in other words. For sure there are pitched battles between Dwarves and deformed Orcs or hideous Goblins. But at least for the first film of this projected trilogy, Jackson emphases fun and comedy.
Wild slides into caves, pell-mell chases, absurd cliffhangers and other such “thrill-rides” in 3D give the film its playfulness. And the title character of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has such childlike wonder in his face that even when sinister threats arise —and they often do — these incarnations of evil fail to dampen the film’s boisterous spirit.
There may be a problem with the many producers and companies —along with Jackson’s wiling agreement, of course, — trying to extend a novel into three movies. Some padding and annoying byplay tax the film but fans probably won’t much mind.
Bilbo Baggins sets the tale down on paper many years later — Ian Holm returns as Old Bilbo — presumably to be read by Frodo (Elijah Wood, again one of many role reprisals from the previous series).
Since the loss of their Kingdom of Erebot to the terrifying Dragon Smaug, the Dwarves and their handsome leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), have been reduced to a wandering tribe.
This is all done in a lengthy comic sequence of “drop-ins” at his comfortable Hobbit Hole where the Dwarves consume all that is in his pantry. The sequence goes on a tad too long and even includes a musical number.
It’s never entirely clear why Gandalf feels the quest needs a Hobbit. (Bilbo will be their burglar despite no demonstrable abilities in that direction.) Nor why Bilbo ultimately accepts the offer other than for the adventure.
Such is the nature of this quest, however, that this feels like reason enough. Then, seemingly, the company is stalked the moment it sets foot outside the Shire.
The treacherous lands traveled through host increasingly menacing and wretched creatures — Goblins, Orcs, Wargs and a curiously fascinating confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) beside an underground lake where the duel takes place with wits rather than weapons.
The totality of the movie-magic here from CGI and motion-capture characters voiced and embodied vigorously by actors to the work of hundreds of costume, makeup, hair and prosthetic artists creates a Middle-earth superior to the triumph that was “LOTR.”
New Zealand’s varied landscapes contribute. There is something so inherently wild and unsettling about these that you are never surprised by the complicated and malevolent creatures that pop up.
Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie blend all the effects into a whole that is pure fantasy yet realistically so. Even with 3D glasses on, which necessarily darkens the image, the dusks are glorious and the dawns magical.
“LOTR” composer Howard Shore contributes another score that is big and bold yet never trumps the action. Rather his fulsome symphonic sound quickens the pulse and steadies the nerves.
To carp, the cliffhangers often feel forced. Granted if Bilbo is relating this tale years later, his survival is a given. And if two more films are to follow, the Dwarves will come through at least the first film relatively unharmed.
Yet Jackson puts them at death’s door so frequently with last-minute rescues beyond miraculous — a term that takes on a qualified meaning in such fantastic environments — that the heroes never seem in any real danger even as an ax is about to come down or a ferocious creature about to close its jaws.
One sequence where treacherous mountains come alive to do battle as poor, tiny Dwarves cling to their dark, craggy shapes feels extraneous, belonging almost to a different movie and unrelated to the quest.
Personal appearances by characters from previous films such as Christopher Lee’s Saruman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett’s ethereally beautiful Galadriel are perhaps a tad self-congratulatory as well.
On the other hand, this confab of wizards does give the film a needed gravity and purpose and helps fill in many narrative blanks for viewers.
If missteps these be, they are minor ones. It’s always difficult to question things in a film when more is to come. What may seem extraneous may prove vital by the third film.
Let’s put it this way: The previous film series never made me want to read Tolkien; the new one does. The mythology comes alive more, for me at least, and the characters feel more down to (Middle-)earth.
Opens: December 14, 2011 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: New Line Cinema and MGM Pictures present a Wingnut Films production
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Ian Hom Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro
Based on the novel by: J.R.R. Tolkien
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Executive producers: Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins, Carolyn Blackwood
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Music: Howard Shore
Costume designers: Ann Taylor, Richard Taylor, Bob Buck
Editor: Jabez Olssen
No rating, 169 minutes