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Short tale told tall

Embellishment is magic word as first part of The Hobbit trilogy hits screen

"All good stories deserve embellishment."

So says no less an authority than the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and he should know. He is himself a character of one of the all-time great stories: The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

From left: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.


From left: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The 13 Dwarfs

The 13 Dwarfs

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins


Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins

But in the scene in question, Gandalf is justifying his penchant for "stretching the long bow;" that is taking liberties with a simple story to boost its entertainment value.

The line serves as a sneaky justification of what director Peter Jackson is doing with his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, the relatively slim volume that preceded LOTR and served as an introduction to Middle-earth, a realm of elves, dwarves, dragons and wizards.

Jackson attacks the project by pretending The Hobbit is Lord of the Rings, a story that warrants a three-movie, nine-hour epic parcelled out over three years.

Embellishment will be required, most certainly.

But does The Hobbit really deserve this?

Jackson (who scripted with his LOTR writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens as well as Guillermo del Toro) frames the story as a flashback memoir told by the elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood).

We find the young Bilbo (nicely played by Martin Freeman) as a hobbit homebody whose suspicions are roused when he meets Gandalf, a wizard who takes unnerving interest in him.

At Gandalf's instigation, Bilbo's home is the site of a party of 13 raucous dwarfs who meet with the intention of returning to their gold-laden fortress home. Years earlier, they were expelled by a huge dragon called Smaug. Now it is the intention of the de facto dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to take back their legacy by making the dangerous voyage to The Lonely Mountain.

The story does resemble the writ-large journey of LOTR, albeit with a less grand, more ambiguous mission than destroying the One Ring by hurling it into the lava fires of Mount Doom.

In this first chapter, that mission takes the party to the Elf kingdom of Rivendell, taking a meeting with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the grumpy wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the sublime royal Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), whom, it is now subtly hinted, may have once had a romantic past with the young Gandalf. Call this "added value" to the movie myth.

Once again, this fellowship of dwarfs, hobbit and wizard must negotiate various terrors to get to their destination, including a trio of culinary-minded trolls, an army of vengeful orcs, and a subterranean population of goblins led by the ghastly Great Goblin (Barry Humphries, sporting a double chin far more substantial than was ever worn by Dame Edna).

The film's dramatic centrepiece is the meeting of Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis), the malicious yet pathetic cave dweller who figured so prominently in LOTR. This is a nice, self-contained retelling of the Riddles in the Dark chapter from The Hobbit that, in itself, is the best payoff for Tolkien fans, a miniature symphony of whimsy, tension and terror.

It feels good to be back in Middle-earth, discovering new characters. As the headstrong Thorin, Armitage is the actor who attracts the most attention, in much the same way Viggo Mortensen emerged from LOTR like a new star.

Yet much of the film's digressions seem flat-out gratuitous, including one sequence when the mountains come alive from beneath the feet of the travellers to do battle with other mountain-oids. This bit seems to serve no the purpose than to impress the pharmaceutically augmented moviegoers among the Tolkien enthusiasts.

Perhaps the best example of unnecessary augmentation is Jackson's decision to go with a 48-frames-per-second resolution that renders more vivid moving picture images. (In Winnipeg, you can see this version exclusively in St. Vital Silver City's Ultra-AVX cinema.)

The upshot: It looks like a video image, especially when the camera moves quickly. Lacking the fluidity and gloss of a film image, the picture somehow registers as flat, even in 3D.

All good stories deserve embellishment? Perhaps. But only if the embellishment is as good as the story itself.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 D1


Updated on Friday, December 14, 2012 at 6:34 AM CST: replaces photos, adds fact box

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