“My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures. Well, I can honestly say I’ve told you the truth, but I may not have told you all of it…”
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since Peter Jackson last brought us to the fantastic lands of Middle Earth. It was one of Hollywood’s most ambitious projects ever. Jackson took on the perilous journey of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous Lord Of The Rings trilogy, perilous because of the beloved place the works hold in the hearts of those who have read them over the years. There is such a wonderfully detailed world delivered by Tolkien that we already had very vivid ideas of these places and characters. To his credit, Jackson proved to be up to the task and delivered a trilogy that one can only describe as brilliant. The lands and people were just as I had envisioned them since I first encountered them in my own youth. Expanded versions hit the home video market, and about 12 hours of story have made it to our screens. And there it has sat for the better part of that decade.
When it was decided to go back to the well and relate the events of the earlier and more child-friendly book, The Hobbit, there were many obstacles to overcome. For one thing, Peter Jackson was engaged in a lawsuit fight with New Line over his cut of the trilogy’s profits. Thanks to wonderful studio accounting it appears this multi-billion dollar franchise didn’t make any money after all, at least not when it came to paying Jackson his fair share. There was also the issue that the rights belonged to a different part of Tolkien’s estate and had to be negotiated all over again. Plans went forward without Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro was signed to write and direct two films based on The Hobbit. Events would lead to del Toro’s exit and a settlement between Jackson and New Line. Suddenly the band was back together, and the film project would eventually expand to another trilogy. The material would come not only from the book itself but other notes and unfinished manuscripts by Tolkien himself. The wait was over, and the new wait had begun.
Now that wait is also finally over, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is ready for its traditional Christmas season release. The story is quite faithful to the original material with exceptional added pieces.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell…”
Bilbo Baggins (Holm) is preparing for the birthday party that would kick off the events of the previous trilogy. He’s writing a memoir for his nephew Frodo (Wood). It sparks his memory back to a time when a younger he (Freeman) was first visited by Gandalf (McKellen) and invited to go on an adventure. The hobbit is, of course reluctant, for after all, hobbits don’t go on adventures. His home is inundated by dwarves led by the would-be king Thorin (Armitage). It appears a mighty dragon had taken the kingdom of the dwarves many years ago and made a nest in their stores of gold. Orcs drove out what was left of the race, and the lineage of the king was pursued and beheaded by a strange pale orc. Now it’s time for this band of dwarves to reclaim their kingdom. With Bilbo’s help as a burglar, they intend to enter the mountain kingdom and release it from the dragon’s hold. Along the way there are many adventures to be found.
The journey takes them to the land of the Elves. They encounter trolls who wish to cook them. There are many battles to be fought, and Bilbo will encounter a strange creature named Gollum (Serkis) in a subterranean waterway. There he will come into possession of an important ring. The story isn’t over here, of course. There are still two more films to tell the entire tale. Next Christmas we’ll see The Desolation Of Smaug, and the following year will bring us the conclusion in the form of There And Back Again.
So, how about the film itself? So glad you asked. Jackson does a wonderful job of bringing you back to Middle Earth so that you feel like you’re returning home. The Shire is just as you remembered it. Sir Ian McKellen wears Gandalf’s gray as if he were born to it. Of course, he’s the glue that holds this together with the Rings trilogy. We see return cameos by Ian Holm as older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo. Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, as is Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Christopher Lee even makes a pivotal appearance as Saruman. The company of dwarves features many excellent performances. But it is the anticipated meeting between Bilbo and Gollum that reminds us why we came to see this film. It is in that moment that the smile never left my face and I was immersed totally into the story that was unfolding. It’s a sight to behold that ring when it first appears, and it will not disappoint at all. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as the young Bilbo. He has enough common features that he becomes Bilbo in no time at all.
The set pieces are just as grand in both design and execution. You quickly believe that these places do indeed exist, and Jackson doesn’t waste your time forcing you to resettle into this world. While the film revisits many places from Rings, there is an entire world of new places and creatures to delight you here. The Hall of the Goblins is an exceptional environment marred only by a George Lucas-styled character that will remind you of the laughing puppet at Jabba’s side in Return Of The Jedi. The troll scene was a favorite of mine from the book, and it works here both on a serious and quite whimsical way.
Remember that The Hobbit was written for children. That doesn’t mean this is a Disney-like kid film. It’s most certainly not. It is, however, much lighter and full of more sight gags. There’s a dishwashing scene in the early going that looks like something out of Snow White and her very different set of dwarves. I’ve heard some complaint about the lighter nature, but not from anyone who understands the original material. These were very differently-styled books. Yes, they are joined together by the ring, and that is absolutely the magical moment of the film. Credit Jackson for truly understanding his material and not bowing to the pressures to merely remake his previous films.
The Hobbit is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. For some reason Warner Brothers did not provide us with the 3D version of the film, so there is some disappointment when compared to my two press screenings of the film. This version is more akin to the 24-frames version and does fit quite nicely with the other trilogy. The high-definition image presentation will be a guaranteed show-off film for your system. The image is at once sharp and brimming with detail and texture. This is so important when dealing with this film. Because of the 48-frame presentation, texture and detail care was very important in this production design. This transfer allows you to partake of every loving bit of craftsmanship. Black levels are excellent. You particularly appreciate shadow definition with the battle of the rock giants. These dark granite creatures battle in a dark rain against very harsh conditions. You’ll be able to make out every line of detail here and maintain wonderful rocky texture, as well. It’s one of the best examples of shadow definition I’ve encountered to date. Colors themselves are exactly what you’d expect and are actually better than the Ring trilogy release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is just as much a show-off for your system. Jackson has created a sound field that truly wraps you in a 360-degree environment. The result is an extraordinary feeling of placement and an immersive experience unlike any film I’ve reviewed on home video in any format. Howard Shore delivers more of his brilliant score, and it’s treated with the grand style it deserves. Dialog is always clear and placed exactly where you expect it. The surrounds complete the effect with their often thrilling boldness. When Bilbo encounters Gollum in the caverns, the sound design will have you smelling the stench itself. Subs are almost always active, thus completing a near-perfect presentation.
This version offers three discs. The first Blu-ray contains only the film. The second contains the extras, while the third is a needless DVD copy of the film. These extras are all in HD.
New Zealand – Home Of Middle Earth: (6:35) These films have done a lot for New Zealand tourism. They make me want to see the place. This feature explores the real locations that provide the backdrop to Middle Earth. There’s also a look at Hobbiton, which has been made a permenant location that you can now visit.
Video Blogs: (2:07:07) These are the production blogs Jackson provided on the net, starting well over a year before the first film opened. They cover many aspects of the film’s production and offer you some peeks at material from the upcoming two films.
Trailers: There are a number of trailer and television spots here.
I’ve said it many times before: expectations are killers. No question they were high here. Add in the controversy over the frame-rate issues and you have the potential for a quite unexpected flop. That’s not the story here at all. This is Middle Earth by the only man outside of Tolkien himself who can take you there, and that he does. Warner has announced and then promptly “unannounced” an extended version to be released at the end of the year. It’s just in time for Christmas and the release of the second film. My sources confirm it will happen. Still, this is a must-have in the meantime. “Home is now behind you. The world is ahead.”