With a wizard’s bag of cutting-edge high-definition 3-D effects and a geek’s fascination with minutiae, Jackson injects J.R.R. Tolkien’s simple, gateway drug of a tale with a gravitas better suited to that dense masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
To stretch the lighthearted 1937 novel into three one-per- year movies, director/writer Jackson and cowriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro troll Tolkien’s footnotes and marginalia for material.
If you’ve plowed through “The Silmarillion,” you know the terrain: Exposition about dwarf lineage, ancient Elvish kingdoms and old battles won and lost -- the Tolkien equivalent of the Bible’s begats.
Still, Jackson’s team unearths some treasure. There’s nasty-looking Orc leader Azog (barely mentioned in the book), and an opening flashback to depict some long-ago evil-doing by the book’s chief monster, Smaug the dragon.
Tolkien’s primary plot is intact: The wizard Gandalf (an indispensable Ian McKellen) recruits the humble, shire-bound hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, winning) in a crusade to slay the sleeping fire-breather of a far-off land.
Despite the set-up, “An Unexpected Journey” is pretty much dragon-free (we see Smaug’s tail and claws, Godzilla-like, at the start and his awakened eye at the end).
That leaves the bulk of the almost-three-hour running time to the side adventures of Bilbo and his 13 dwarf companions, led by the heavy-hearted Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, handling the Viggo Mortensen stoic heroism).
Among the journey’s set pieces: a layover in the elvish village Rivendell (with Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving recreating their “Rings” roles); a run-in with a trio of Cockney-accented comic-relief trolls; and a close call with several mountain-size granite creatures called Stone Giants.
If the latter resemble Rock’em Sock’em Robots on steroids, blame goes in part to Jackson’s new High Frame Rate 3-D filming process.
Doubling the standard number of frames-per-second, the new format (available in select theaters) displays images with disconcerting clarity and depth.
The odd result is at once lifelike and artificial, a high- gloss mash-up of live-theater immediacy and the harsh, unforgiving look of afternoon soap operas.
At its here-and-there best, “An Unexpected Journey” wrestles technology, storytelling and imagination into one great beast, and more often than not that is the brilliant Andy Serkis’s motion-capture Gollum.
Hissing about his “Precious” through pointed baby teeth, his blue saucer eyes conveying more depth than any landscape, the pathetic, murderous Gollum is the franchise’s masterwork. Here, in one creation, is a soul from Lon Chaney’s silent Hollywood, in a body of the future.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” from Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Evans)
‘Stand Up Guys’
Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin play retired gangsters on a spree in “Stand Up Guys.” They steal prescription drugs, go joy-riding, visit a whorehouse and generally behave like morons a quarter of their age.
Following the conventions of the geezer action film, they easily outsmart and outfight threatening hoods in the prime of youth. The movie, written by Noah Haidle and directed by Fisher Stevens, is bearable -- barely -- because of Walken’s dry cool and Arkin’s sense of humor.
But, oh, Pacino. How depressing to watch him behave like the elderly Bette Davis, using his wrinkles and his pot belly to beg for our sympathy.
Though his character is supposed to have just emerged from 28 years in the pen, it’s hard to feel sorry for him, because you can’t forget it’s Pacino up there. He isn’t an actor who fades into a role.
He’s always been all over you. Sometimes it makes you euphoric and sometimes, as here, it makes you want to cringe.
“Stand Up Guys,” from Lionsgate, is playing in New York. Rating: * (Seligman)
‘Save the Date’
Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) isn’t sure she loves Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), the singer she’s just moved in with, the way her sister, Beth (Alison Brie), loves Kevin’s bandmate, Andrew (Martin Starr). A mortifyingly public proposal seals her doubt.
“Save the Date” is a comedy about commitment and its terrors. The main thing it has going for it is a quintet of adorable young actors (the fifth is Mark Webber as Kevin’s rival, Jonathan) who, with one exception, are easy to hang with and know how to make the most of their hipster lines.
The exception is Brie, or rather the petulant princess she plays, fixated on her wedding plans and mad at her boyfriend and her sister for not obsessing with her. (What on earth draws this prim control freak to a slovenly rocker -- and vice versa?)
The others, though they all have careers, seem to be living in a Slackerville of the mind. When Jonathan tells Sarah why he admires fish -- “They get to float around and there’s nowhere they gotta be” -- he pretty much expresses the movie’s ethos.
“Save the Date” is neither dumb nor aimless, and the actors create real characters. But the director, Michael Mohan, is a little too eager for his movie to be loved.
The issues of commitment it raises are unresolvable -- ultimately, you take the plunge and hope for the best -- so resolving them feels dishonest. Moreover, it uses a lost cat as a plot device, and there’s nothing respectable about that.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at email@example.com. and Craig Seligman at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.