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Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The (Blu-ray Review)

15 Mar, 2013 By: John Latchem

Street 3/19/13
Box Office $301.87 million
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $44.95 3D Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
Stars Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis.

Why does The Hobbit have to be three movies?

Oh, sure, the potential to milk $3 billion out of it is certainly a motivating factor. But creatively? The whole think reeks of self-indulgence.

This is hardly surprising coming from director Peter Jackson, whose original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy clocked in at more than three hours per film, and nearly four hours each in the extended cut. Heck, his remake of King Kong in 2005 was just over three hours, padded by overlong special effects shots that tested the patience of the audience.

Jackson’s decision to extend The Hobbit from two films to three seems to stem from that same desire to create amazing, visually stunning sequences that never seem to end due to Jackson being in love with his own take on the material. To be sure, An Unexpected Journey certainly fits into that category. The thing is, even the idea of making it two films always seemed like a stretch to me. While J.R.R. Tolkien originally wrote “Lord of the Rings” as three books, his earlier The Hobbit was just one volume, and much shorter than any of the sequel tomes that followed.

Admittedly, I’ve always been of the mind that the original “LOTR” trilogy is a bit overrated. But one book, one movie seems to be the rule of thumb here.

The plot of The Hobbit isn’t the most complicated adventure ever told. A group of dwarves aided by Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) recruits the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to journey with them to reclaim their former kingdom, a mountain dwelling long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. It’s the obstacles along the way that provide the bulk of the conflict in the story.

Of course, the centerpiece of the first film is the first encounter between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis), during which the Hobbit finds the One Ring that becomes the primary plot device of “Lord of the Rings.” The depiction of their battle of wits is easily the best scene in the film.

To pad out the story, Jackson has made this a true prequel to "Lord of the Rings," foreshadowing the return of Sauron (the evil force at the center of "LOTR") with elements created by Tolkien for indexes to his original books. He also adds a framing device of the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing the story just before the party scene at the beginning of the first "LOTR" film. This is a pure nostalgia play but it's also a cute and charming way to connect the two trilogies.

Overall, this first installment, at just under three hours, runs by at a way-too-leisurely pace. The movie may actually seem better on disc, where at least viewers can watch it in even smaller segments to avert a tendency to nod off when the scenes run a little long. I’ll be curious, once all three films are released, to see the degree to which fan-edits will combine the footage into a shorter, briskly paced single film.

Clearly this Blu-ray release will be the first of many editions of The Hobbit on disc, but as a starting point it should be enough to whet appetites. Discussing the audio and visual quality is rather pointless, as both are expectedly pristine.

The extras are isolated on a bonus disc and consist of two parts.

First is the “New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth” featurette, which plays like a seven-minute spot for the country’s tourism board. This is primarily about the New Zealand landscapes, and re-constructing the Shire set with permanent materials so it would be a tourist destination in the future.

The main focal point is the two hours of video blogs, containing a lot of wonderful little behind-the-scenes moments, such the set visit by John Rhys-Davies, who played the dwarf Gimli in the earlier trilogy. Another fun moment features Jackson running through some of the James Bond sets at Pinewood Studios in England. However, I shudder to think of Jackson directing a four-hour long Bond movie.

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