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'The Hobbit': An Only Sometimes Unexpected Cinematic Journey

Santa brings a very mixed bag to blockbuster franchise.

This holiday, with the expected blockbuster franchise The Hobbit (it has already broken records for midnight release of a movie more than two-and-a-half hours long) Santa brings a very mixed bag.

First, let's talk about the coal-worthy aspects of the An Unexpected Journey. Unless you are a slave to technology, spend most of your days playing video games or crave seeing the next big thing, avoid the mercifully limited number of screens (10 percent) showing it in 3D filmed at 48 frames instead of the usual 24.

Director Peter Jackson argues the high frame rate technology gives the movie a sense of reality, like "looking into the real world." Unfortunately, while it brightens the often-muddled look of 3D, it also points up every quirk and flaw, every brushstroke and piece of latex in the make-up and sets. Stick with the traditional version so you won't be completely distracted, unable to connect with the characters and feeling like you've stumbled into a two-and-a-half-hour video game. Overall it has a much better chance with an audience when seen in 2D at 24 frames per second. 

As many have heard, Tolkien's The Hobbit is being split into three parts, or nine hours of film.  For An Unexpected Journey, it results in lengthily front-loaded exposition, which feels molasses slow. We are treated to a nearly completely new set of characters, some of whom are colorful but hard to get to know. This is definitely true of the grumpy, decidedly reticent lead character Bilbo Baggins. 

He is asked by the always delightfully mischievous and wise Gandalf (bright spot Ian McKellen) to accompany dwarfs on an adventure that will ultimately mean encounters with a myriad of magical creatures and a fight to take back their home from the evil dragon Smaug. Jackson's choice to expand the story into so many hours of film has not proven altogether smart so far, as it feels a disjointed series of flight and/or flight sequences, some of which will likely enthrall the audience, but some of which stretch too long to keep our full attention.   

As to aspects of the movie that might inspire Santa to bring a shiny new bike, there are certainly enough to warrant a trip to the cineplex. Gandalf is at his quirky grandest, with his iconic beard, pipe and pointy hat. You can see Ian McKellen is having a ball, inviting the audience to share in his mischief with his knowing enigmatic glances. 

As Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman (Watson in BBC's Sherlock) is a perfect mix of innocent wide-eyed wonder-filled man child and stodgy stick in the mud. He makes us care about his journey, which helps connect us enough to his adventures that we go with him and wish him a safe journey where he might expand his mind and heart. 

He has always been an actor of great subtlety and depth. In lesser hands, Bilbo would have been a caricature trapped with us in just another overlong fantasy flick. I would have expected no less from Freeman, and he delivers.  

What delivers the very most, though, representing The Hobbit's best and most brilliant moments, are the scenes between Bilbo and Gollum, which reportedly were the first scenes of the movie to be filmed. If all of The Hobbit was that engaging, it would surpass anything in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  

Reprising his role of the shriveled and uber-creepy cave-dweller, Andy Serkis is as mesmerizing as ever, and even more terrifying. The fact that the character is put together by performance capture* and Serkis can make him so compelling, eliciting everything in the viewer from repulsion to fear to compassion, is something on which Academy members should ruminate seriously between now and awards time.

The production design in scenes at the elven home Rivendell and the exciting goblin chase give the audience very diverse color palettes and artistically rendered computer-generated images to enjoy. They may point to a potential for more inspired sets and environments in the next two films. 

So Cinema Siren asks all you Lord of the Rings geeks: Will you walk out cursing Peter Jackson in Elven: "Auta miqula orqu" (Go kiss an Orc) or excitedly praise it and the upcoming second and third installments "Cormamin niuve tenna' ta elea lle au' (my heart shall weep until it sees thee again)?  

My guess is a mix of both. Thank the elven queen we have Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis to enjoy. Their moments together make the two hours and 46 minutes worthwhile. Let's hope this is the weak link in the three-film trilogy.  Let's all choose to hope and trust Ian, Martin, Andy and their fearless leader Peter Jackson will build with these three movies a Hobbit for the ages. The holidays are a time of optimism. Until Bilbo Baggins gets back to the shire, that's where I'm going to live.

*Performance capture, of which Andy Serkis is the undisputed acting king, is an animation technique wherein computers and computer animators translate visual data from an actor's facial and bodily movements wearing a helmet and infrared suit that reads their particular choices.   

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