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An epic adventure unfolds in 'The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey'

December 13, 2012 3:11pm
“What has roots as nobody sees? Is taller than trees? Up, up it goes, and yet never grows?” came the riddle from Gollum, a murderous, eager gleam in his eye.

“Mountain!” replied Bilbo Baggins triumphantly, able to stave off getting eaten by the psychotic ex-halfling for a few more minutes.

With Martin Freeman playing the role of Bilbo, the titular hobbit of the movie is imbued with a nerdy and nervous aura that translates into a shrewd intelligence when he needs to get out of trouble.

Like right now. Lost in the bowels of the Goblin mountains, with his dwarven comrades taken prisoner, Bilbo is obliged to play out a deadly guessing game so he can find his way through the labyrinthine and dark underworld. If Bilbo wins, Gollum guides him out. If Gollum wins? Bilbo is served as second breakfast.

This riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum is a priceless and precious moment full of tension, terror, and drama. It’s handled with delicacy and apt tribute. It’s also a huge set-up.

When Bilbo later grants Gollum the act of mercy we’re all familiar with from the later movies (if you haven’t watched any of the “Lord of the Rings” Elijah Wood-starrers then you best watch all 10 hours of them pronto!) by staying his sword--that will eventually impact the War of the Rings six decades later--we understand him completely in that moment.

It is a humane act, a sympathetic act that looks us squarely in the eye and nudges us in the gut as challenge: would you have done any different? And the answer, personally, is a resonating “No.” And that’s just for starters.

So, welcome back to Middle-Earth with two hours and 45 minutes of glorious fantasy cinema. “The Hobbit, AUJ” takes us back to J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy land, 60 years before the great war against Sauron.

We begin with a young Bilbo Baggins who’s living a peaceful life in his home at Bag End. Like all of his kind, he’s pastoral and averse to any mischief or this “adventuring nonsense.” In fact, though he loves to read about exciting tales in his books and spotting them on maps, he knows little of the world beyond the Shire.

Since this movie focuses on the dwarves, there’s a lengthy intro about dwarven genealogy, about the line of Durin, through Thrair and Thror, and thence to Thorin, and the glory of their former kingdom. It’s a sight to behold, this city.

If you are at all interested in the fantasy history of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, the 3D Imax spectacle of the scale and gold industry that “flowed like rivers in the stone” of the dwarven city of Erebor at its peak is worth the price of the first 15 or so minutes of exposition.

It was a legendary place until the dragon Smaug came along, claiming the vast hoard of gold for his own, driving out the indigenous people in the process.

Now a homeless race, it is the grey wizard Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) who eventually helps out Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), now the leader of the dwarven people in exile, on a mission to try and reclaim the wealth that is still in Erebor.

Based on intelligence from (now that I think about it, dubious) folk sources, the dragon Smaug has not been in the city for years, prompting the return of the native birds and other fauna in the neighboring woods. Bilbo figures into this because the dwarven team needs a scout, someone to quietly reconnoiter the place before the noisy dwarven soldiers and their clanking armor attempt to re-occupy their former kingdom.

Gandalf none too subtly recruits Bilbo, in a series of funny “home invasion” scenes I won’t spoil for you.

There are touches of fantasy grandeur writ small and often personal here. Driving it are two themes: homelessness and homesickness. Thorin embodies the first while Bilbo is afflicted with the second the moment he runs after the dwarf contingent, signed contract waving in his grasp.

Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf king without a throne, is a flawed and anger-ridden hero motivated by a consuming mission. His devotion often makes him blind to the counsel of others, well meant though it may be. He is sensitive and prickly and proud to a fault. But he sure does know how to motivate his kin.

“There is always building within [Thorin] this paranoia that he’s not a good enough leader, and that weighs him down,” Armitage, in a promo interview, said about his character.

This is Bilbo’s story though. His “unexpected journey” is a coming of age not only because he suddenly realizes that his life in The Shire has become a huge bore (an epiphany that happens, of all things, as he stares at an empty, and very clean house which had been filled with boisterous and rowdy dwarves the night previous), but also for the call of adventure that was in his blood all along.

“The things that struck me about [Bilbo] suggested a certain timidity in many situations, a certain hesitancy in life, because his world is his home and Hobbiton, and beyond that is a bit scary,” said Freeman.

Resistant to change he may be –or, as my Zodiac-obsessed friends would say, as classic a Taurus as you can get– he DOES yearn for something to sweep him off his feet. Something visceral and intense, something as grand as a dwarven quest to the Lonely Mountain.

As always, the production level here is off the charts. Even more so, they are detailed and intense in 3D. You’ll be stunned at the sprawling vistas of New Zealand, the shimmer of dwarven armor, the intricacy of their hair and beard braids, and how they combine speed and strength for their classic low attacks that echo Roman battle formations. Don’t even get me started on the elves, especially the very svelte Cate Blanchett reprising Galadriel.

Noteworthy about the cinematic tech of the film is director Peter Jackson's use of state-of-the-art digital cameras to record the action, filming in natural 3D at 48 frames per second for release in High Frame Rate 3D, as well as all the standard formats. This is an unprecedented frame rate that makes the action scenes seem much more intense, unfolding at a faster (literally “fast-mo”) speed. I have yet to see this version, though.

Got a fave dwarf? No worries, you soon will. Mine is Thorin, who’s prickly and princely in equal measure, easy to loathe and easy to give your loyalty to as well. He’s the kind of noble-in-exile who’s as honorable as they come though he, painful as it is and quite literally, can’t afford honor. A close second is the order-obsessed Gloin (the father of Gimli), who’s the team’s accountant and lawyer.

Still, the first of three “Hobbit” films doesn’t hit the previous trilogy’s perfect, high fantasy notes all the time. The fate of the world is not at stake here, the great, threatening evil that is Sauron is still trying to muster his eye open and, as noble as Bilbo and Thorin’s quest is, as any fantasy reader will tell you, it's just an adventure that doesn’t have that much import. When you factor everything in, it seems like an excuse to step out your door for plunder, fame, and thrill-seeking – at least until the next two films come along.

Jackson and his screenwriters (among them another famed auteur: Guillermo Del Toro) were very wise to this aspect of the story and played up the comedic tone of the movie with light-hearted scenes aplenty. The dwarves are an intrinsically happy and raucous bunch after all, but too often it seems like the movie is trying to make us see the jesting, clowning side of Middle-Earth. At times it brought down the tone and it felt like I was just watching 12 goofs (Thorin almost always keeps his reserved cool) showing off how humorously crass they can be, even in the classy environs of the elvish city of Rivendell.

High fantasy comedy? It’s a territory that hasn’t been fully explored and here, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a more easy-going adventure than the all-or-nothing quests of the later LOTR arc, and sometimes the golden-hued fairy tale approach is like a dwarf on a horse trying to do cartwheels.

Watch out for the troll triad scene with Fili and Kili, and the final battle scene with the dwarves against the host of Azog’s orcs. They could have been more intense if you’re not thinking at the back of your head: hey, this is kind of “Okay Ka Fairy Ko”-type slapstick here, or is it just me?

Big heroes deserve big enemies, and Azog the Defiler atop his albino Warg mount is a worthy nemesis for Thorin. Theirs is a tribal feud that illuminates the enmity between dwarf and orc, but as far as interesting villains go, the fat Goblin King with his singularly sagging jowl steals the scene as both malevolent and droll.

Care to be in the company of exuberant, battle-ready dwarves? If you crave something other than the usual yuletide feel-good movies, then there’s no better way to enjoy an adult fantasy for three hours while the missus and the kids go shopping.

Listen to the “Song of the Lonely Mountain” theme performed by Neil Finn, and get pumped to go back to Middle-Earth. – YA, GMA News

All photos courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

'The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey' is now showing at all major cinemas and will be screening through the holiday season in selected theatres. The 48 frames-per-second 3D version will be shown at Glorietta 4, Greenbelt 3, Greenhills, Robinsons Ermita, Robinsons Galleria, SM Cebu, SM Mall of Asia, SM Megamall, SM North Edsa and SM Southmall.
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