Welcome loyal readers and new friends. This week I take a look at the much-anticipated adaptation of The Hobbit, as well as the latest from Oscar-winning director Kieth Merrill (read my interview with Merrill here). If you're new to the site, consider “liking” me on Facebook or following me on Twitter to get updates on new reviews, articles, and interviews.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY REVIEW (GRADE: B+)
To those who've never read Tolkien, whose exposure to Middle Earth has come only through Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings film trilogy, may I offer a word of advice that'll help you enjoy The Hobbit as much as I did? Alter your expectations. The Hobbit is no Lord of the Rings. It doesn't have the high-stakes of a battle to save the world, with the various races uniting against a common enemy. It doesn't have the date-night-ready romance between Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler, the swoon-worthy (for some) derring-do of Orlando Bloom, or a group of lovable 20-something heroes for the college kids to relate to. What it does have is an effectively simply story about neurotic hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Frodo's uncle, 60 years before Lord of the Rings) and his adventure helping a group of dwarves regain their homeland from a vicious dragon, at the insistence of grizzled wizard Galdalf (Ian McKellen, in a superlative performance). We also get to see how Bilbo acquired that little gold ring which causes so much trouble later on.
With that in mind, I can say that The Hobbit finds director Peter Jackson back in fighting form creatively, with the sweeping New Zealand vistas, thrilling battle scenes, gorgeous visuals, illustrious set and wardrobe design, and cutting-edge visual effects that Rings fans have come to expect. The performances are first rate, which is to be expected when one of the world's best directors works with some of the world's best actors. As Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman is so perfectly cast that one can see why the film's shooting schedule was built around his commitments on BBC-TV's Sherlock. Freeman brilliantly, and often hilariously, captures the nervous energy of Baggins while adding layers of doubt, fear, and ultimately selfless heroism. Richard Armitage provides gravitas, grit, and hidden warmth as Thorin, a royal dwarf warrior determined to reclaim a home for his people and restore honor to his family. We, the audience, are still getting to know all of the other dwarves, but the actors do fine work and we come to care as much about them as we can in this jam-packed story. In the film's best sequence, Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, engaging Bilbo in a life-or-death game of riddles. Serkis is at once very funny and very frightening, and one remembers why his interpretation of the character is so iconic.
At 2 hours and 40 minutes, the film does run too long, sacrificing the novel's excellent pacing and getting bogged down in the middle as it expands the story, adding details found in Tolkien's appendices. A dialogue scene between Galdalf (Ian McKellin), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), for example, seems to go on forever. While it's a thrill to see these “original players” back together, the scene will bore to tears anyone not fluent in geek-speak (for those who understand it, however, it's an admittedly cool bit of foreshadowing to the events of Rings). It must be said that none of the returning actors seem to have aged a day, though it's been a decade since the originals were filmed.
On a technical level, the special effects (as well as the capabilities of “virtual cameras”) have advanced in the last ten years. The film is a marvel to look at (with a battle between “rock giants” a particular highlight), yet unlike the Star Wars prequels, this film maintains a visual consistency with the original trilogy and the story is structured such that one can start with the Hobbit movies and segway seamlessly into LOTR, digesting the entire epic tale in chronological order. Composer Howard Shore continues to provide definitive music for Tolkien's world. Though The Hobbit is in some ways the least of Jackson's Middle Earth films so far (as its primary purpose is to lay the groundwork for what's to come in later installments) it is still a staggering achievement and a fine start to a new trilogy. Even with its flaws, it's one of 2012's best films and is not to be missed in theaters. (Note: Much has been said about the film's 48 frames-per-second cinematography; in most theaters it comes only in the traditional 24 fps, which is how I saw it, so I cannot speak with any authority on the matter).
CONTENT OVERVIEW:The Hobbit- An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13. It has no sexuality or language. There's one mildly crude joke and some gross-out humor involving troll mucus. As with The Lord of the Rings films, there's plentiful battle violence, with frightful goblins, trolls, and orcs stabbed, shot with arrows, and having their heads and arms chopped off.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: One of the greatest things we can aspire to is a place we and our posterity can call home (D&C 38:20). It sometimes takes amazing courage to show mercy and compassion to others (Matthew 5:44; Mosiah 9:1-2; Alma 44:6). It is the small acts of kindness and goodness that keep evil at bay (Alma 37:6; D&C 64:33).
Just for fun, I thought I'd share my Gollum impression from back in the day (starts at 2:45).
12 DOGS OF CHRISTMAS: GREAT PUPPY RESCUE REVIEW (GRADE: B)
It's tough to pull off a good dog movie. For every Old Yeller, Lassie, or White Fang, there's a cheap Beethoven or Air Bud sequel to drag down the genre. These types of films are by nature sentimental and family-friendly, which is fine in and of itself, but often leads to lazy storytelling and characterizations by filmmakers who are counting on cute pups, melodramatic acting, and leg-raising pee-pee jokes to carry a 90 minute production. Fortunately, director Kieth Merrill (The Testaments, Legacy, Mr. Krueger's Christmas) is not a lazy filmmaker (read my interview here). Having honed his craft over decades of movie-making, including an Oscar-winning documentary and a dozen IMAX films, Merrill brings his artistic sensibilities to the table with 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue, which works as both a standalone film and as a sequel to his original 12 Dogs of Christmas.
Granted, Great Puppy Rescue is not high art. It's not challenging, mind-blowing cinema. It's a simple, straightforward family film. What it does, however, it does very well, giving further evidence to Roger Ebert's famous assertion that “it's not the story you tell, but how you tell it.” With a charming lead performance by Dani Chuchran (who gives her character spunk, warmth, and wit) and solid supporting work by Heather Beers (Charly, Baptists at our Barbeque), and D.B. Sweeney (The Cutting Edge), as well as a host of young actors and cuddly canines, the characters are better-realized than in other films in the genre. There's only so much dramatic tension and emotional involvement possible in this type of film, and its a credit to Merrill and his actors that we come to care about the characters. Sean Patrick Flannery (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) comes across as more of a one-dimensional villain, but that's par for the course. The attention to detail in recreating the look of the 1930's in clothing, props, and sets is impressive, and the song and dance numbers provide some real razzle-dazzle. 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue is a well-crafted, well-acted, warm-hearted holiday movie that goes down as easily as a glass of egg nog. Families will enjoy it immensely. It is now on sale.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue is rated PG. It has no violence, sexuality, or language. There's an accident scene and some moments of puppies in peril, but the film is designed to be appropriate for all ages.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: We all have different gifts and talents; if we unite them by working together, we can accomplish great things (1 Corinthians 12:4-27). Dogs can be wonderful friends and sources of comfort (Luke 16:21).