The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ★★★

It was so nice to revisit Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings flicks, Mrs. Face suggested we rewatch The Hobbit next. I was game. I'd only seen them each once, during their respective theatrical runs, and while I wasn't nearly as into them as I was the previous trilogy, I didn't hate them, either. Maybe I would get more out of them in quicker succession? We bought the extended editions and dug in.

My main point of trepidation when I first saw An Unexpected Journey came from knowing that Peter Jackson had tried to hand off The Hobbit to his, Fran Walsh's and Philippa Boyens' new credited co-writer, Guillermo del Toro. Jackson had clearly wanted to go on to other projects, but someone added enough zeros to the contract to bring him back. It also seemed weird to me that what was initially planned as a two-parter - befitting the much shorter story of the book - had somehow become another dang trilogy, setting off bloat warning bells that unfortunately rang for a reason. This chapter is indeed slow to get going, with the hour until the journey starts feeling longer than it is. Without much differentiation aside from their bitchy leader (Richard Armitage), the other one who just looks like a regular guy with fake hands (Aidan Turner) and the nice older one with the pointy nose (Ken Stott), the goofy, bossy dwarves become a bit irritating. By the time they're battling their way out of the goblin mine, though, it has thoroughly picked up, and the climactic standoff is rousing enough to justify most of the wait.

What stuck out to me most upon revisiting this first movie was the extent of its prequelitis, those winking moments where you're supposed to chuckle and say, "oh, that's where he got that sword from!" or whatever. From the Frodo cameo at the start to the long stays in Rivendell, there's a preponderance of LotR reminders/setup that feels a bit like the sprawling production team didn't trust this other Baggins and a horde of interchangeable dwarves to carry the audience through. Older/younger Ian McKellan would have been enough of a bridge for me, but I can't say I mind seeing the old gang, and when it's germane to the actual Hobbit story (see: Andy Serkis), it's pretty cool. At least most of the returning stars are elves... they're the only characters in these movies whose fingernails are not completely disgusting. Of the new guys, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) seems like a chill dude I'd like to hang out with, collecting mushrooms and petting squirrels in the woods, and Martin Freeman is a perfect young Bilbo.

The high frame rate didn't freak me out too much at the theater, and on Blu-ray, the movie just has that regular nowadays silvery-contrasty blockbuster look that's gonna look super dated in about a decade. But while it appears CG fire technology hadn't progressed an inch in the nine years since The Return of the King and the pastoral Shire now looks like the harshly lit set of an allergy medicine commercial, it was impossible to take my eyes off of An Unexpected Journey. The pristine digital artificiality has a dreamy, glowy vibe of its own, one that I personally don't prefer to the comparatively analog feel of LotR, but must admit makes for an even radder, more gleaming Rivendell. The creature design is solid here, especially the villains Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and the Goblin King (Barry Humphries of Shock Treatment and Dame Edna fame). I really like the latter's little song, and wish he got to do a whole musical number like David Bowie's Goblin King did. At least we get the cool dwarf hymn. Despite all my gripes, this is a decent fantasy flick with a lot of care and artistry on display, one I might go easier on if the previous trilogy wasn't so amazing, or so fresh in my mind.

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