The Hobbit 3/4: A movie review by James Berardinelli

December 19, 2012 by James Berardinelli - Reelviews
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In 2001, only a few months after the fall of the World Trade Center, Peter Jackson swept us away to Middle Earth with The Fellowship of the Ring..writes James Berardinelli.

It was a wondrous three-hour achievement: the first major attempt at serious, big budget epic fantasy. It succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination (“imagination” being the key term), and Fellowship, along with its follow-ups, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, convinced Hollywood that there was unexplored ore in the fantasy mine. Now, nine years after closing the book on The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has returned to the scene of his greatest success. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of a three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s first Middle Earth adventure, is both more and less of the same. There are numerous concrete reasons why An Unexpected Journey fails to live up to the standard set by The Lord of the Rings, but the most critical is also the most intangible: the magic is gone (or at least muted). An Unexpected Journey is a competent, entertaining effort but it neither enthralls nor amazes in the way its predecessors did. There’s no question that Jackson is attempting to recapture something elusive and, although there are stretches when he comes close, he never quite attains that goal. It would be monumentally unfair to label The Hobbit as a “failure,” but calling it a “disappointment” would be reasonable. Jackson established expectations with The Lord of the Rings; his inability to fulfill them is perhaps a trap of his own making.

The book The Hobbit was written by Tolkien about 17 years before The Lord of the Rings reached print. First published in 1937, The Hobbit arrived before the storm clouds of war had gathered across Europe. The Fellowship of the Ring came after the world (or at least part of it) had been altered by more than a half-decade of carnage. It’s no surprise that the tones of the books are so different. The Hobbit is fast-paced and jaunty; The Fellowship of the Ring is considerably darker and more serious. The biggest challenge faced by Jackson is how to address this tonal shift, and his solution is imperfect. To “fit” The Hobbit into his overall cinematic vision of Middle Earth, he slows down the pace and blackens some of the lightness. He incorporates elements found not in the text of The Hobbit but in appendices and references in Tolkien’s other works. And, most tellingly, he opens the movie with establishing shots set in The Shire during a time period just preceding the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Hobbit is essentially one long flashback, with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing a memoir. While it provides a spark of nostalgia to see Holm again (and Elijah Wood as Frodo), it also adds 10 dull minutes to the beginning that might have been better relegated to a DVD “Extended Edition” release.

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