Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What A Long Strange Trip This Is Going To Be

Reel To Reel: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Going Rate: Worth full price admission for LOTR fans, matinee for everybody else
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
Rated: PG-13 (but could pass for a straight PG)
Red Flags: Some scenes of intense fantasy battle violence, some of it gross, but nothing off the charts

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is epic fiction filmed epicly. At times, the prequel to the Lord Of The Rings saga plods, but it doesn't want to leave anything out. Peter Jackson is back at the helm as director, and he's found a way to split one book into three films. This first one clocks in at nearly three hours. I will confess I've never read The Hobbit, but at this pace, Jackson is not just filming every page; he's filming the margins.

Many of you reading this already know the plot: hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is recruited to join the wizard Gandalf (McKellen), warrior Thorin (Armitage) and a band of dwarves to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from a gold-hungry dragon that's seized upon the royal stockpile and run everyone out. Bilbo is living a middle-class life in the Shire: roomy hole in the ground with a nice library and lace handkerchiefs. After a wild party and a bit of self-reflection, Baggins decides it's time for an adventure with a group that could use someone small in stature to be their "burglar."

The film plays like a gigantic game of Dungeons and Dragons, full of episodes and battles and atmosphere to convince us the quest is no walk in the woods. We meet all sorts of monsters, creatures and characters, some of whom we know will be important later on, like the goblin Gollum (Serkis -- say it with me: "Dee Pwechiousss!"). The rest we might not have to remember, because they're not going to be around after this gargantuan first act.

I saw The Hobbit in much-debated high-frame-rate 3D, double the speed of standard motion pictures. Home theater geeks sometimes complain about the "soap-opera effect" caused by advanced-technology TV's that add in extra frames to smooth out motion but make Pirates Of The Caribbean look like an episode of The Young And The Restless. I found 48fps avoided that live-video look while still providing amazing clarity of J.R.R. Tolkien's universe perfected by Jackson and his digital wizards. They show much more wizardry than Gandalf, who uses his powers sparingly either because he prefers it that way or because he needs remedial education from Hogwarts -- or because we need to stretch the conflicts over three pictures.

Don't misunderstand: I liked the first Hobbit film. But you need to know it's not for the casual movie fan who may get sucked into it because of the hype. This is a film made for fanboys, and with millions of them around the world, Jackson has to deliver.

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