Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey" is an above-average fantasy film, a dense piece of entertainment that packs more visual wonder into its two-and-three-quarter hour run than seems possible.  It is a very good movie.  I say that upfront because any discussion about what does or doesn't work about the movie is going make some people very angry since they've been waiting to see it since 2003.  If a careful appraisal of the films flaws (and there are many) is upsetting to a fan who wants perfection from what they'll see in theaters later this month, then please just skim down and read the positive things I have to say, then go see it for yourself.

When I reviewed "Fellowship Of The Ring," it is safe to say that I lost my ever-lovin' mind for it.

I remain a huge fan of not only that film, but of every combination of footage consisting of "The 'Lord Of The Rings' Trilogy. The theatrical films, the extended editions, the DVD sets, the Blu-ray editions, an upgrade every time.  I think it is a major accomplishment in the history of fantastic filmmaking, drawing on horror, science-fiction, fantasy, and even historical dramas in terms of how it was crafted and paced and designed and executed.  Peter Jackson tried something that no one else had ever done on that scale, and he pulled it off with aplomb.

It seems almost hubristic to go back for seconds.  I'm sure Peter Jackson has had some sleepless nights along the way as he's wrestled with his own cinematic legacy in deciding to direct not just one or two but three "Hobbit" movies, a sort of final summation for him on all things Tolkien.  Knowing how much the Tolkien estate dislikes the "Lord Of The Rings" films, I would imagine these movies will make them positively livid.  There's no way they're ever selling Jackson another piece of Tolkien material to adapt, and at this point, there's nothing else that these producers have access to.  If they can do it, they are doing it in these movies.

Knowing how much business was involved in simply clearing the way for these films to happen, knowing how much pressure there is on any business that's financed over the next eighteen months to the tune of about a billion dollars, these films must have been difficult to make.  And considering the story being told, there's a certain lightness of touch that is necessary.  "The Hobbit" is not exactly the same thing as "Lord Of The Rings," so it can't just be direct rehash of what we've seen before.  In fact, the more I think about all the pitfalls involved in making this film, I'm surprised Jackson and company agreed to do it.  Once they started, though, they had to commit completely.  There are no half-measures when making something like this, and it does look to me like all involved have poured heart and soul into the making of the film.

So how is it?

There is more of a sense of heavy lifting involved at the start of the film as the older version of Bilbo, played once again by Ian Holm, shows up in a framing device that takes place mere moments before the opening of "Fellowship."  It felt to me like they had to do a lot of legwork just to get to Bilbo writing the words that open Tolkien's book, and while it always felt to me like "Fellowship" had this fairly effortless quality at the start, handling all the details of world-building with ease, this time it seems far more calculated.  There is also the difficult nature of the way it all opens, with a dinner sequence that introduces all 6000 dwarf characters and that seems to go on for a few hours.  It is one of two major momentum killing sequences in the film, and taken together with the frantic, overwhelming nature of some of the action sequences, it makes for a very mixed experience.

One thing is sure:  very few filmmakers have ever created worlds with the intricate density of the Middle Earth that Jackson has brought to life in these films, and that continues in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."  It really does seem like fate that Jackson would be the filmmaker who ended up making the films, since I can't imagine what they would have looked like shot anywhere besides New Zealand.  The way they blend the real and the unreal is seamless at this point, and there are some remarkable images in the film, some remarkable places.  The Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, for example, is a truly wondrous place when we see the story of how it fell to the dragon Smaug, and there is a sequence set on a mountain pass involving Stone Giants that is surreal and beautiful.  I think fantasy cinema in general is richer for sequences like these existing, and they totally justify the return to Middle Earth.

But by its very nature, "The Hobbit" is more episodic, and in addition to that dinner sequence at the start of the film, there is a detour to Rivendell that features some great moments (Christopher Lee is marvelous and seems to savor every word he delivers), but that also seems to go on and on and on.  Pacing is an issue in this film in a way that it never struck me as a problem in any of the three "Lord Of The Rings" movies, and I think part of it is that we just don't end up getting to know these characters as well.  While I think Martin Freeman is a tremendously talented comic actor, I am starting to suspect that casting him was perhaps too easy.  He gives a very good Martin Freeman performance here, with all the awkward double takes and reaction shots that you'd want from him, but I don't know much more about Bilbo now than I did at the start of the three hours.  With "Lord Of The Rings," it always felt like the films were carefully calibrated to give every character the moments that would help define them, but this time out, it feels more like a big group of characters that we don't really know, doing things with fairly low stakes overall.  Bilbo seems to join them on a whim, not out of any particular driving need, and it makes him less interesting as a central figure.

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