MANILA, Philippines – “Out of the fire pan and into the fire.”
So exclaims Gandalf the Grey while on the run from goblins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the prequel to the larger-than-life Lord of the Rings trilogy from director extraordinaire and Middle Earth native Peter Jackson.
The same Middle Earth saying serves as an apt description of this first installment of 3, an epic tale of adventure and camaraderie that just keeps heating up every minute into the film.
Bilbo Baggins, played with lovable fussiness by Martin Freeman, is the center of this tale: a sheltered hobbit spoiled by creature comforts, who takes pleasure in the security provided by his home.
This security is shattered when he is visited by the wizard Gandalf, again played with warm vitality by Ian McKellen, who invites him to an adventure.
But “invites” is perhaps too subtle a word because a few days later, Bilbo is forced to entertain 13 rambunctious and less-than-hygienic (at least, based on hobbit standards) dwarves who reveal that they are on a mission to reclaim their old kingdom under the mountain.
Their gold-filled fortress was taken long ago by a dragon but omens of ravens returning to the mountain foretell the end of the dragon’s reign.
Gandalf and the 13 dwarves ask for Bilbo’s help. For their mission to succeed, they need a “burglar,” someone light-footed and small, to get past the dragon.
Bilbo then makes a decision that sets in motion events that will shape Middle Earth.
The choice of Martin Freeman for the role of Bilbo was nothing short of inspired.
A master in playing the reluctant hero, he was first a man in a bathrobe thrust into galactic adventures in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He then played jaded ex-military man Dr. John Watson who becomes an unsuspecting sleuth sidekick in the TV series, Sherlock.
Though the movie is named after him, Bilbo is a quiet presence in the film, overshadowed by other monumental characters such as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), leader of the Company of Dwarves and King of Erebor (the lost kingdom under the mountain). But perhaps this passivity is a set-up for character changes to come, introducing us to a Bilbo barely out of his shell.
Freeman uses to advantage his well-loved expressions in bringing out Bilbo’s character: from his blank-pan stare of stupefaction to his sheepish, shrugging grin. The Bilbo we get is a lovable underdog, in turns cowardly and brave, pitiful and inspiring.
Thorin is the Aragorn of this story, made grimmer and given a more tragic backstory. Richard Armitage plays him to perfection, exuding an aura of nobility and greatness that firmly grounds the otherwise rowdy, comical Company of Dwarves.
Though he is less charming than Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, Thorin is still a character you would root for and follow until the very end.
Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Andy Serkis reprise their roles as Lady Galadriel, Lord Elrond, Saruman the White and Gollum respectively, bringing with them a hint of darker, heavier things to come.
Lighter but still action-filled
You can feel Peter Jackson indulging, using the freedom of 3 movie installments to explore every detail of the relatively slim The Hobbit book. This first movie itself is 2 hours and 45 minutes long.
After the Shire-set prologue, the film delves deeply into the history of dwarves. Themes from the LOTR trilogy resonate: a once great line of kings is dethroned, the hard-hewn heir rises from the ashes of history to reclaim his throne and his people’s home.
The Hobbit was written by LOTR author J.R.R. Tolkien as a children’s book which explains why the movie is lighter in tone than the previous 3. Characters are given more comic lines and even a scene involving ravenous trolls takes a funny turn.
That said, the film is not lacking in heart-stopping battle and combat scenes that make the Lord of the Rings movies so satisfying. Like Bilbo, viewers will start in their comfort zone but will be taken more and more into the thick of action.
The Company is thrown into one battle scene after another, coming against such a legion of foes that hope is reduced to a flicker of a candle in the depths of a cave.
What to look forward to
This movie involves singing dwarves. I almost feared I was watching a musical but started to breathe more easily when I noticed no one was belting out or doing ludicrous dance moves. In fact, the singing is only to be expected because all of Tolkien’s books involve songs and some pages contain nothing but lyrics.
The solemn humming of the dwarves is sung in full in the movie, a spine-tingling and haunting hymn narrating the tragedy of their people.
Viewers will also want to see for themselves the effect of Jackson’s use of high frame rate (HFR) technology. He shot the film at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24, giving the movie a crisper, sharper look.
Textures of door frames, leaves and skin are captured in astonishing detail, prompting critics to comment that the film looks too much like video. But the argument that it looks “too real” to be real fails to impress this viewer.
No doubt the most awaited scene in the movie is Bilbo’s first encounter with Gollum and the Ring of Power. You’d be surprised how exciting a game of riddles can be, but exciting it is.
Largely contributing to this is Gollum himself. New animation technology has widened his already astonishing range of expressions. This allows viewers to feel with new intensity, his spitting hostility closely followed by his pitiful vulnerability.
But Gollum and the dragon are only the tip of the villain iceberg. More sufficiently frightening bad guys are introduced, themselves supplied with rich backstories.
Being the first of a series, the film’s ending will naturally leave viewers hanging, but the movie is satisfying in every other way. You will not want for action or heart.
Bilbo’s journey has just begun. I, for one, cannot wait for the rest of it.
Watch the trailer here:
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