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'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' Does What the 'Star Wars' Prequels Failed to Do

By Matt Patches, Hollywood.com Staff

Much to the chagrin of the adults who caught Star Wars in 1977, or even the ones who grew up with the film in years to come, George Lucas designed his follow-up prequel trilogy with a different audience in mind. As he believed of his original films, the prequels would be crafted for children of the day. As we all know, the expansive, colorful, often-goofy escapade didn't sit terribly well with those who kept a place in their hearts for Luke, Leia, and Han.

With his first of three Hobbit films, An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson daringly attempts the same maneuver, aspiring to capture the essence of his Lord of the Rings trilogy while translating it for a younger crowd. Rightfully so — as W. H. Auden notes in his 1954 New York Times review of Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit ""is one of the best children's stories of this century."" What Jackson understands and gets wonderfully right in An Unexpected Journey (and that Lucas failed to understand with 1999's The Phantom Menace) is that kids dream like adults. They harbor different sensibilities, their concept of life's big challenges evolve, but children can be captured by the same iconography as their parents — they just needed it painted in broader strokes.

So Jackson splashes his brush in paint and goes wild. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey sports a lighter tone than its predecessors — comedic routines and a brighter palette making Middle Earth palatable to the youngsters — but the film doesn't lose any of the adventure or danger necessary for J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy. The film follows the titular halfling, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), enlisted by wise old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to accompany 13 dwarves on their quest to retake the Dwarven homeland now ruled by the nasty dragon Smaug. After surviving the dwarves' impromptu dinner party — a true display of Bilbo's neurosis and Freeman's knack for physical and linguistic comedy — Gandalf and the band of pint size warriors embark on their journey.

The first half of the An Unexpected Journey is stuffed (perhaps overly so) with backstory, introductions to old friends (Elijah Wood makes his necessary appearance early in the film), and silly characterization of the new characters. Jackson loves having the dwarves in his arsenal, an ensemble who can sing songs, scarf down food, and let loose in the fairy tale world. Not since The Frighteners has the director had this much fun on screen, and it's a choice that might turn off fans of the grim original trilogy. Even the keystone of the franchise, composer Howard Shore, opts for a more playful style with bellowing vocals and brighter melodies. For kids and anyone who throws memories to the wind, it's a hoot.

If An Unexpected Journey relied solely on big comedy moments to entrance kids (and their parental guardians), it would fail. But through Bilbo, it puts younger kids in the driver's seat and reminds adults of that low status time in their lives. The central conflict is between the hobbit and the headstrong leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The dynamic is like a cool kid and his younger brother — Thorin is saddled with Bilbo, the only one of them capable of sneaking into the Lonely Mountain and stealing back treasure from Smaug. Thorin lets him run with the pack, but embarrasses him to show power. He also protects him from pursuing Orcs (newly added characters who hunt the group and add a necessary amount of action to the plot) when necessary. Thorin is no Aragorn — the relationship between him and Bilbo thinner than anything in LOTR — but it's warm and familiar.

The movie is equally rooted in a love for storytelling, speaking directly to anyone who has ever been tucked in and told a bedtime story. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) opens the film with a history of the Dwarven people; Gandalf name drops the kooky brown wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) before the action cuts to his story thread, and early into their quest, an elder dwarf Balin (Ken Stott) tells a tale of Thorin's early adventures, fighting an Orc off with only a hunk of wood (flashbacks being another digestible way for Jackson to sprinkle action into the simple tale). Exaggerated details (""and then the mountains turned into people!"") even make the film feel more like a story passed down through time than LOTR's urgent, in-the-moment quality.

An Unexpected Journey doesn't have the looming danger or live-or-die stakes one hopes of a Middle Earth journey, making the film's epic nature — the movie clocks in at two hours and 50 minutes — feel meandering by the second. Thankfully, Jackson's expert direction and production value keeps attention hooked. Sets, costumes, makeup, and CG characters are once again expertly crafted, and even more imaginative than past films. Three enormous, starving orcs and a society of underground Goblins — ruled over by a tubby king with an enormous jowl — both feel like margin doodles come to life. Same goes for the film's main adversary, a frightening albino warrior who rarely looks out of place when placed side-by-side with his human counterparts. Gollum (Andy Serkis) appears once again to challenge Bilbo to a match of wits — one of blockbuster cinema's best scenes of the year — and the enhanced special effects makeover job never lets the mind question the reality.

The film was also screened for press in Jackson's new toy, 48 frames per second, which gave the entire production a strange tangibility, like of that of a BBC TV show or uncalibrated HDTV. In the dialogue scenes, it put the audience in the room with the actors, even making the CG characters look more real. Only in the film's swiftest action moments was there blur. An interesting experiment that mostly works, but perhaps a tad distracting for those who want to sit back and lose themselves in Middle Earth.

The technological prowess feels like a cherry on top knowing The Hobbit was stretched into three films by Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The trio successfully find a thematic entry point to their first Hobbit and pace it with everything a fan needs from the established world. An Unexpected Journey has large-scale battles — from Elven warriors clashing with Orcs on wolfback, to the dwarves versus an insurmountable army of Goblins, to original trilogy callbacks, and foreshadowing to what might come next (let's just say The Hobbit may not be stretched over three films after all). Performances make the film as engrossing as any other in the series — McKellan rediscovering the charm of Gandalf, Freeman being the perfect fish out of water, and the dwarf troop finding a balance between comedy troupe and faithful, heartfelt companions.

The film has its moments of shock — if the kids are too young for a good ol' fashioned Orc beheading, An Unexpected Journey is not for them — but in the end, it aims to be the fantasy read, played and explored in the imaginations of people of all ages. A fresh, free-spirited form of fantasy, Jackson's latest provides a younger generation with the right kind of stepping stone to his later films, while serving the adults who want more. No destroyed childhoods here.

[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

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