Down the hobbit hole

Feeling both delightfully new and heartwarmingly familiar, Tolkien’s universe returns to film

The hobbits are adventuring again, off to bridge the gap between blockbuster and critical acclaim while making legion of fans weep with delight.

The first realization one has as “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” guides you through its lengthy, setting-establishing opening sequence is an understanding of just how much love and care was put into the film.

Director Peter Jackson loves hobbits. He loves them even more than he loves dwarf song and dance, overlong lineages, oddball fellowships and all other things so very Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and, even moreso, “The Hobbit,” are passion projects on a blockbuster level, something rarely seen outside of Christopher Nolan’s filmography.

Much has been made of the plot-stretching, but that is fairly easily forgiven when put up against the movie’s other elements of performances. One of these is the cast’s performance.

British film and television star Martin Freeman, one of the leads on the acclaimed BBC series Sherlock, is flawless as Bilbo Baggins, nailing both the look and mannerisms in what is one of the more convincing performances to be seen this year.

The movie, like its journey, has a weight resting upon the figure at its center, and the unassuming Freeman nails the in-over-his-head, furry-footed fellow with the heart for adventure.

Ian McKellan is unsurprisingly superb in his return as the aged, clever wizard Gandalf the Grey, leading yet another claptrap gaggle of misfits on a dangerous adventure.

Other performances are perfectly above par, if less noteworthy. Each of the dwarves is fine enough, though the royal would-be king Thorin feels a bit Aragorn-light. Andy Serkis is as bizarrely good as ever in his motion-capture suit, with Gollum returning to create the most tenuous, pivotal scene of the movie.

Other familiar faces (Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) return to tie the Tolkien films together—an effective touch.

In addition to the characters, the joy is in the journey and the little things. Action and adventure are all very well handled, feeling familiar, and all the more riveting for that.

That familiarity is what makes this one of the easier movies to recommend this year. Opinions will fall fairly in line with how viewers felt with the first three forays into Middle Earth, as the depth and atmosphere are reapplied as thoroughly as before.

The hyper realness of the visuals is so sharp that the crystal clarity of the copious amounts of scenery are distracting, partially due to a sense of wonder, but also because of an unease about how every leaf is discernible. It tempts an accusation of trying too hard to make it look real.

This is an odd feeling, and is similar to the carping about the molding of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s features in last year’s sci-fi buzz film “Looper.” The sharpness isn’t really bad; it’s just different. It seems unfair to criticize something done well simply because it is so distracting for its difference from what is comfortable from years of movie going.

Complaints about the stretching and drawing out of the plot, amongst a few other small but oft-noted criticisms, are quite valid. The thing is, the film performs so well in other areas–smart, witty dialogue, complete saturation in the setting, and elements carefully translated from source material to screen in a way that is just right—that those criticisms fall to the side.

Yes, the amount of time dedicated to the slimmest of Tolkien’s novels is certainly unnecessary, though the material borrowed from his other writings certainly helps. That’s not the point, though. The point is that director Peter Jackson and company are bringing as much of Middle Earth to life as reasonably possible, and doing it well. They fill holes present in the story that Tolkien himself was perturbed by—to the delight of the legions of fans salivating for ever more of the universe.