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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Peter Jackson amazes in latest trip to Middle-Earth

Published: January 17, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first installment in a series of three, based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit,” arrived at the end of the year, but quickly established itself as one of the must-see movies of 2012.

“The Hobbit” chronicles the tale of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he goes on an adventure with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to help a company of dwarves reclaim their home from an evil dragon, Smaug (who will be voiced in the later installments by Benedict Cumberbatch).

What makes this adaptation of “The Hobbit” such an engrossing film is its wide range of characters, and the skill with which they are played. Even with 13 dwarves to work with, Jackson and the actors made them each authentic and relatable, and left the audience cheering at the reckless courage of the plump Bombur (Stephen Hunter) or gasp as Gollum (Andy Serkis) sadistically toys with Bilbo in the iconic riddles scene. The dwarves’ stoic leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), provides one of the most interesting characters. With his tragic backstory explained at the film’s onset, the audience is able to watch the seemingly callous Thorin transform into a more emotional character, until he proclaims Bilbo a welcome addition to the group for his heroics in a previous battle.

Despite intense instances of drama such as these, the film is rife with humor. Martin Freeman brings Bilbo’s wit to the forefront of his portrayal of the character, often delivering amusing quips and one-liners in otherwise dire situations; this is especially prominent in the beginning of the film, as he is astounded by the spectacle of the dwarves cleaning up after their feast in his kitchen, which they had ransacked minutes before.

Any movie about Middle-Earth would feel incomplete without Jackson’s traditional panoramic landscape shots: “The Hobbit” does not disappoint. Jackson follows his tried-and-true technique from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by including sweeping views of the gorgeous New Zealand landscape throughout the film, which blend in seamlessly with the other, computer-animated elements. The sheer beauty, intensity and realism of the world immerses the audience in the story, and vividly allows them to feel as if they are right next to the heroes as they flee a pack of Orcs hell-bent on murder.

Complementing Jackson’s cinematography is the score, composed by “The Lord of the Rings” veteran Howard Shore. In a varied collection of pieces, Shore not only evokes the darker “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and its widely-acclaimed scores, but breathes new life into “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” He gives the music a lighter, more child-like feeling without losing sight of the danger that seems omnipresent in Middle-Earth. From the upbeat and playful rhythms of “An Unexpected Party” to the brass-filled swells of “Out of the Frying-Pan,” the audience is swept up in the music from the first measure. Also noteworthy is “Misty Mountains,” a haunting ballad sung by the dwarves themselves rather than a chorus of professional singers—a scoring choice that gave the song a much more realistic feel, showcasing their longing to return home.

There are some issues with the film: its somewhat tedious initial 45 minutes and the fact that “The Hobbit” has been stretched into a trilogy. This was the source of considerable controversy when Jackson announced he would be including additional material from the books of the original trilogy (namely the appendices from The Return of the King) in order to stretch the comparatively short novel into a trilogy. Some have argued that Jackson is extending them for profit—a claim that was easy to dismiss before the proposed pair of films became a trilogy of films with the announcement of the third installment in 2012. While his experience with the previous trilogy mainly consisted of cutting down the intimidating length of the books into manageable screenplays, he tackles the opposite problem with “The Hobbit,” and based on “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” he seems to know what he is doing.

The main changes for this installment consisted of including Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a wizard of Gandalf’s order who watches over the forests and tells Gandalf of a powerful necromancer living in the ruins of the evil Dol Guldur; additional appearances by characters from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy not in the original novel include the elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).

Despite issues with plot authenticity and directorial changes, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” remains a great movie, with breathtaking cinematography, gorgeous effects and talented character portrayals. Thanks to Jackson’s previous successes, the bar is still set high compared to “The Lord of the Rings,” but the trilogy is off to a great start.