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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
New Line Pictures/MGM
Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski 

Many people, even film director Peter Jackson himself, concluded that one day when Jackson would be no more, he would be remembered for his film version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—one of the most epic achievements of modern cinema.

They say lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, but in this case it has. Jackson has now directed Tolkien’s introductory book to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, some ten years after he filmed Lord of the Rings. Has The Hobbit been worth the wait? The answer is a definite yes.

Jackson’s decision to film the book as a three-part trilogy, to lens the films in 3D, and to shoot them at 48 frames per second--which is twice the normal projected film frame rate--in order to achieve additional clarity and realism, has further piqued interest in the film.

And with so many characters from Lord of the Rings reprising their roles once again (both on camera and behind the scenes), the result is that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is sheer delight—there is so much to love--so many nuances and deft touches.

It is grand, funny, stirring, emotional—and it strikes all the right balances and themes. Jackson and company have worked very hard to make this a special viewing experience.

Is it a perfect film? No. The seams sometimes show. But for comparison’s sake, the seams also show in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and Mahler’s symphonies. That doesn’t make them any less great. And Jackson’s technical legerdemain and his ace cinematographer keep our eyes riveted to the screen.

What also helps is the 48 fps frame rate in the Imax 3D version that I saw. The higher frame rate enhances both the clarity of image and the special effects and it definitely increases the depth perception in the 3D—which incidentally is spectacular and thrilling to begin with and the best since Hugo. It’s even a step beyond Avatar.

The 48 fps process does give the image more presence and immediacy and it may become the future of cinema. Time will tell. Some viewers don’t like it. But some also didn’t like high definition digital filmmaking when George Lucas introduced it with Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. That was then. Today, most cinema-goers would not be able to distinguish which films have been shot in digital and which have been shot on celluloid.

The Hobbit follows the adventures of the young Bilbo Baggins who accompanies a team of dwarfs and the wizard Gandalf to reclaim a mountain kingdom protected by a dragon. Martin Freeman is the perfect choice as Bilbo. Not only does he look like a younger version of Ian Holm (the Bilbo of the Rings trilogy) but he can alternate between expert comic timing and dramatic weight with equal ease.

What a pleasure it is to revisit Middle Earth once again and experience the same sense of wonder. Standout scenes include a Council at Rivendell, with clever surprise appearances by Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman, and a superb confrontation in a cave with Gollum as well as a dynamic sequence with giant rock monsters among many others. The sweeping scenic New Zealand vistas of Middle Earth are sheer visual poetry.

The special effects are outstanding and the literally cliff-hanging 3D is harrowing. Adding to the intensity is film composer Howard Shore who expands on his earlier score of Lord of the Rings. As he couples familiar themes with new material, he is clearly building another musical masterpiece.

For those who feel that Jackson has overreached by expanding The Hobbit into three films by drawing on material from appendices of Lord of the Rings and other sources, it is important to note that Tolkien himself revised The Hobbit more than once to have it conform more closely to Lord of the Rings.

What Jackson has wrought is a beyond-the-state-of-the-art epic. The themes of selfishness, greed, heroism and maturity resonate and mirror the even deeper themes in Lord of the Rings. One senses the intelligence that went into this script and the grand design that Jackson is weaving. In addition, Jackson’s filmic style has matured and his showmanship is on full display. He is building a six-part film masterwork. With any luck, he will visit Tolkien’s Silmarillion when he is finished here and direct yet another great film.

But for now, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its remaining chapters will serve to keep us more than occupied and enthralled with its beauty, its adventure and its cinematic wizardry.

© 2012 Dennis Kwiatkowski/Celluloid Dreams


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