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Capone gladly steps back into Middle-Earth with Peter Jackson and THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

Some people like returning home, to a place that felt like a safe haven from the dangers of the world around them. For others, home isn't such a great place, and they are not particularly eager to return. For me, stepping back into Middle-Earth with members of the Baggins clan, a greying wizard, some familiar elves, a wiry, fractured creature named Gollum and director Peter Jackson feels like going home. And while there are stretches of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY that feel like, well, they're being stretched, I never was bored or exhausted by the untold number of dwarves, orcs, goblins, trolls or hobbits, because seeing them on the screen again (or for the first time) was somehow comforting, satisfying and tonally familiar. Nothing wrong with any of those feelings while watching a movie.

I'm not here to dwell on frame rates and visual quality. I've seen AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY at both 48 and 24 frames per second, and I'd say they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Since much of the film takes place at night or underground, the 3D is problematic at 24fps; things are simply too dark. The 48fps presentation doesn't have these light issues, but it does result in a bizarre-looking video-esque style that, in these darker moments, looks pretty great. But in scenes set in broad daylight, something ain't right. If you're ultra curious and open minded about high frame rate, seek out a theater screening the film that way. Otherwise, stick with what you know. It's not great, but at least it looks like a movie.

I loved the sidetrips out of J.R.R. Tolkien's THE HOBBIT text that Jackson and his co-writers take us on. And clearly much of what we're shown here is simply prologue to the next two films. AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY falls victim to some of the same issues that THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING did—there's a lot of meeting characters, exposition, and setting up of the grand adventure to come. Jackson fills in the exposition with a few fun action sequences, although far too many of them seem to involve Gandalf (Ian McKellen) vanished for a stretch only to save the day at the last minute as his charges get into one bind after another.

Among those traveling to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug are 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield, played by the noble Richard Armitage, taking over the hunky slot for Viggo Mortensen in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy) and the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, playing the younger version of the character Ian Holm played in Rings). Needless to say, keeping 13 dwarves straight in one's head is a challenge, and I'm not convinced that distinguishing them is even something Jackson succeeds at. But enough of them establish individuality that I started to find favorites among the short, hairy creatures. Armitage's Thorin doesn't offer much emotional depth in this chapter, and his knee-jerk reactions to certain threatening events grow tiresome after a while. I'm hoping he becomes a little more subtle later in this journey.

I was especially impressed with Freeman, who found a few wonderful mannerisms originated by Holm to play with, while adding a sense of fear and anxiety about leaving his home in the Shire. I was moved by Bilbo finding his motivation in going on this adventure in the plight of the dwarves, who have lived several decades with no home. Bilbo loves his own home so much that he wants to assist the dwarves in finding their own place of permanence in the Lonely Mountain. And during the course of the film, Bilbo goes from helpless creature to warrior in the making.

And by the time he arrives at his encounter with Gollum, during which he acquires the famed One Ring and enters into a game of riddles in the dark, it's difficult not to be transfixed. The lengthy exchange is the high point of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, and it's impossible not to be impressed with Andy Serkis' return to Gollum, who seems more vicious and conniving here. It's the kind of moment that makes you hold your breath and pry your eyes open so you don't blink and miss a word. More than maybe any other part of the film, the riddles exchange feels the most like what I love most about The Lord of the Rings movies.

Probably my second-favorite sequence is the one set at the Elf kingdom of Rivendell. I don't think I'm ruining anything by saying that Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving return, and while they are meant to be revered, they seem a more grounded as characters thanks to a bit of humor and some disdain thrown at them by the dwarves, who have reason to distrust elves.

Less impressive is the villainous presence of the Pale Orc, the mortal enemy of Thorin. I'm not sure why, but they guy just didn't feel menacing to me, despite his ample scarring and crude replacement arm (taking the place of one Thorin hacked off in battle years earlier).

But when it comes down to it, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY comes down to the touching relationship between Bilbo and Gandalf, who takes on the role of mentor both in battle and in philosophical approach to looking at the many wonderful and dangerous corners of Middle-Earth. Gandalf gives Bilbo the sword known as Sting, but then makes it clear that its as important to know when not to use it as it is to master the art of combat.

We get a taste of things to dark things to come, including the battle with Smaug, a Necromancer who is about to bring dark times the the land, giant spiders that are seen briefly, and that Pale Orc is still living at the end of this movie. I love that AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY begins with a prologue that takes place right before the beginning of Fellowship, just as Holm's Bilbo is beginning to write down his adventures with the dwarves. The connective tissue is strong between Jackson's two trilogies, and I suspect the connections will get stronger as he gets deeper into this story. Jackson's mission with this film is to get things rolling and not necessarily to plunge us neck deep in epic battles, and I'm willing to be patient as long as things pick up in the next two films. The great tribute you can pay to any director is to be excited to see what they do next. It helps that we know what Jackson's doing next, and I'm especially excited to continue the adventure with him in this world with this remarkable (and expanding cast).

-- Steve Prokopy
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