[***** 5 stars -- Until the DVD is available on Amazon, no film review can be posted so I'm posting it here]
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
While Gandalf the Wizard [Ian McKellan] remains timeless, it was obvious from the start that the Bilbo Baggins of three *The Lord of the Rings* films fame [Ian Holm, now pushing 80 years old] would have to bow out for the making of *The Hobbit*. Director Peter Jackson had surely asked himself, "Who could portray a young Ian Holm?", (but not necessarily a younger Bilbo Baggins since we now perceive Bilbo to look like the actor.) Answer: Martin Freeman. And he was right - Freeman effortlessly coalesced into the lead role.
In the first of the two *The Hobbit* entries [sub-titled: *Into The Wilderness*], a more youthful Bilbo Baggins is crow-barred by Gandalf into embarking upon a great adventure (Hobbits *despise* adventures!) and by serving as a burglar for a grumbly troupe of thirteen dwarves, all of whom are determined to reclaim their lost family treasure from the Evil dragon, Smaug; however, the actual battle with Smaug at the Lonely Mountain will have to wait until Part II [to be entitled: *Into the Fire*] is released.
Part I largely focuses upon the history of the dwarves and the initial hazards that they encounter during their single-minded quest, chiefly battling orcs in the Misty Mountains and as they contend with the giant spiders of the vast and ominous Mirkwood forest.
It's worth noting right off that the screenwriters very shrewdly rehabilitated the puerile songs of the dwarves [found throughout the book], transforming them into a range of vivid action scenes. This strategy achieved a pair of worthy ends: 1. I've heard audio versions of this story and to include the dwarf renderings of these archaic and lengthy songs would have been in profound conflict with an effective film conveyance. 2. These newly-fashioned scenes provide additional fodder for the artful expansion of the general lack of book material, thereby reinforcing audience interest.
Honestly, a movie version of Tolkien's *The Hobbit* could feasibly have been corralled within a single feature-length film [just think of all the ground that was covered in Avatar (Original Theatrical Edition)] - but the financial anticipations of the producers [greed], which tended to tenon seamlessly with Peter Jackson's lust for detail, had dictated long ago that viewers would have to hang on for a `final' conclusion. Part I features an ending of a sort but perhaps it would be more forthright to regard it as a dramatic finale.
One looming uncertainty which has kept Tolkien fans off-balance was whether the screenwriters would go dark with *The Hobbit* in an effort to effectively link it up with The Lord of the Rings - The Motion Picture Trilogy (Platinum Series Special Extended Edition) series, particularly since Tolkien originally penned the earlier work as a sort of kids' fairy tale. In retrospect the answer to the question was probably evident to Peter Jackson from his earliest conception of a film version, noting additionally that his time-honored philosophy is that first-class films cannot simply mirror the books from which they are taken. A good screenplay massages a book for all it's worth but the visual and audio aspects must be fully accommodated too.
Particular figures such as Gandalf, Elrond [Hugo Weaving], Galadriel [Cate Blanchett] and, Gollum [Andy Serkis] have already been firmly established in terms of image and it would be less than prudent at this juncture to radically manipulate the personalities of these prominent returning characters. And speaking of Galadriel, she was never a personage to be found in Tolkien's *The Hobbit* but Peter Jackson mined her from Tolkien's trilogy, casting her very strategically in his film version (along with Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom who also did not appear in *The Hobbit*) to further expand the script. Blanchett's presence additionally helped to overcome the gender gap of the book version. Still, these two actors are not in any way just add-ons - their respective roles and performances have lended considerable gravity to the story.
It is impossible to separate this film's noir-ish ambiance from Howard Shore's magnificent soundtrack. He's done it again! Upbeat and even a bit frivolous at the outset, the filmscore soon slips furtively into darker realms as the story advances, a few heroic themes being reserved for the appropriate dramatic moments. One is acutely taken with the leitmotif which Shore appended to Beorn, a Prokofiev-ish ponderousness integrated with a more serious Beethoven-like dignity... the perfect musical emulsion for the venerated skin-changer.
Once initial New Zealand and Australian actors' guild stumbling blocks were surmounted, the Kiwi locations again became a reality, a twin-island geography wholly adequate for the production when supplemented by studio settings, all of which have lead to the presentation of an astonishingly exceptional end-product. It would certainly have proven problematic to reproduce The Shire's Hobbiton in Eastern Europe, a location which was suggested during the early union-troubled days.
Martin Freeman's dazzling performance has eclipsed even that of Elijah Wood's stellar lead role in *The Lord of the Rings* films. The former's ebullient energy ironically seems to have retrospectively amplified Ian Holm's earlier portrayal of Bilbo in the New Line Cinema trilogy of films. The remaining cast members have also set the viewers at complete ease as they creatively played out their respective roles. Peter Jackson undoubtedly learned early in his career that, given spot-on casting, at least half the battle is won. And it's hardly surprising that a particular limelight shines on Fili [Robert Kazinski] and Kili [Aiden Turner] since this caveat, for those of us who already know the story, will markedly impact most of us when we get to view the second film. The director is clearly looking ahead.
In the larger view *The Hobbit* story lacks the bulwark of heroic figures which we encountered throughout *The Lord of the Rings* series, Aragorn, Boromir, Theoden, Faromir, and so on. Still, imposing characters such as Elrond, Beorn, and Bard the Bowman provide us with a subliminally comforting melodramatic security blanket. The bottom line is that this superb movie is not simply the detritus of *The Lord of the Rings* films. It's refreshing that Peter Jackson was shrewd enough to not endeavor upon such a futile parallel attempt - he created this film from scratch. Embracing that same notion, the screenwriters saw to it that the storyline endured sufficient jumbling so that the tale is not precisely as linear as the one we encounter in the book. This film stands on its own.
With better than a baker's dozen of little folks in starring roles the temptation to over-incorporate moments of comic relief [vignettes of Gimli] must have rivaled the gnawing urge which only The One Ring could normally generate. While some tasteful levity was well within the bounds of the script, I did actually breathe a sigh of relief once I realized that few such incidents were forthcoming.
The computer generated images aspect of the movie, while perfectly executed and integral to the overall work, are nicely supplemented by scale doubles, forced perspective images, miniatures, and other Jackson-ish tricks of the trade. No fear - these facets of the film are all first-class and delightfully palatable. Additionally, due accolades can hardly be suitably imparted to all the folks who helped to polish this film to excellence by means of effective make-up, articulate stunt work, unequaled cinematography, precise production design, and all the other crew activities which only ever seem to rate a fleeting line of scrolled credit.
One is pleased to observe that the new role of Warner Brothers and MGM [Hollywood-based companies which recently acquired New Line Cinema] did not perceptibly obstruct Peter Jackson's proclivity for artistic detail. The casual but essential impedimenta present at every place where the Dwarfish Crusaders land aids us all to subconsciously believe in the reality of Middle Earth along with its numerous and varied inhabitants. Probably much credit for the focused attention upon the near-infinite number of magical nuances should go largely to Alan Lee, a man with an unbounded imagination coupled with a vast artistic talent.
I present only a singular critique of this film and it has nothing to do with the body of the movie itself: I feel compelled to comment that the decision to incorporate the endless scroll of Tolkien Fan Club members' names within the end credits is ill-advised and indirectly demeaning to the actual cast and crew. What do these people actually contribute to the film's production? Loyalty and moral support? The folks who have indeed delivered something more tangible are appropriately credited elsewhere within the credits. But most of the listed individuals have played no real part whatever, regardless of the syrupy patronization conducted by the film-makers toward this particular faction of Tolkien enthusiasts. Including these names in the film credits, which also takes in the so-called self-appointed "guardians" of Tolkien's work [a trivial minority of Tolkien Fan Club members], amounts to little more than a shallow ego-bribe. It's presumptuous as the devil to assert that Tolkien's books *need* guarding by anyone - the affiliation here is more akin to pretentious posthumous tail-gating on the venerable Old Master.
The credits perquisite imparted by the film producers, appears in my view to ostensibly head off any whining outrage raised on the internet by those Tolkien radicals who are wholly unyielding in regard to the slightest manipulation of Tolkien's texts. This posture is pure nonsense. In the end, if one's name is included in the film credits then how can s/he ever issue an untainted appraisal of the film? In truth, such an individual could never ethically issue a fruitful critical review, (nor would they likely be *inclined* to criticize, which leads me to question the motives and ethics of the producers on this front.) But here I ramble witlessly upon a topic which only faintly deserves to be dignified by my attentions to it. In truth, my mini-rant is not even a legitimate film criticism - it's really just a pet peeve.
In summary, *The Hobbit* contains enough MacGuffins and other surprise moments to make it seem like a new story while still paying a more than adequate tribute to Tolkien's original manuscript. Martin Freeman was surely a brilliant choice to play Bilbo. I can hardly wait to see Part II!