Wax your hyperbole. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is far and away the most spectacular movie of the holiday "wowie-zowie" season. Fan boys and girls, please note: We said "most spectacular," not necessarily "best."
It takes filmmaker/generalissimo Peter Jackson and his tinkers about two minutes to warm up, idling there in the suburban Shire. Just long enough for Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous, diminutive, reluctant hero (Martin Freeman), to run into Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) and arrange the rest of the story cycle neatly, with everything lined up in a row, station to station. Bilbo's friendly coterie of dwarves swarms and yammers. Flashbacks unfurl. Loathsome trolls maraud. Clammy orcs and wargs, too. Mountains come to life and fight each other. Cate Blanchett, as princess Galadriel, shimmers in a moonlit mist. Goblins pop and boil in their cave kingdom. Sturm und Drang, fire and brimstone, intake-compression-power-exhaust. What a pile of ... stuff. But is it humane? Yes.
With the help of Mexican international fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro — plus writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — the indefatigable Jackson keeps a thin membrane of a philosophical lid on all the caterwauling and explosions garnishing J.R.R. Tolkien's labyrinthine cautionary tale, once the sole province of cocooning, Hobbit-like hippies. Warns Gandalf: "Always evil will look to find a foothold in this world." And so it does. But the inhabitants of the evolved civilization of Rivendell — Hugo Weaving, Blanchett, Christopher Lee – and New Zealand's finest scenery (with CGI enhancements) keep things grounded in cinnamon and sugar.
If there's a scene that could stand alone, it's the subplot of Radagast (played by actor Sylvester McCoy, a onetime Doctor Who). After nearly being devoured in his scrofulous hut by giant spiders, the crafty wizard jumps in his rabbit sled and outraces his pursuers. That's one peak among many in this two hour, forty-six-minute maelstrom of apprehension.
Meanwhile, the true star of the show remains Andy Serkis' repulsive/attractive marvel of the ages, Gollum. Bilbo tumbles into Mr. Precious' living room in the lower depths and the two of them thrash out the meaning of life in the most important scene in the movie. Must ... have ... the Ring. And with it the responsibility. Bilbo has a home, the dwarves do not. One must know when to take a life, and when to spare it. Keep seeking, keep scuffling, keep buying tickets.
Too much is not enough. It never is. Overstimulation is addictive. Weta Digital's special effects, abetted by Andrew Lesnie's cinematography, Dan Hennah's production design, and Alan Lee and John Howe's conceptual design, make the 3D seem superfluous — that's usually the case, but in this visual wonderland, 3D is even more glaringly unnecessary. If there's another drawback to the overpowering splendor of Jackson's vision, it's the knowledge that next year at this time we're going to have to go through it again. And then again in the summer of 2014. So it is ordained. Carry on, Hobbits.
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