Reel Reviews

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

Audience:
A-II – adults and adolescents

 

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Read the book first

First published in 1937, Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s novel “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again” has proved so popular in the decades since that it has never gone out of print.

With “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (Warner Bros.), director Peter Jackson provides movie audiences with an epic 3-D screen version of the opening part of Tolkien’s widely beloved work.

Not for the easily frightened nor – at well over two-and-a-half hours – for those with short attention spans, his sweeping journey across Tolkien’s imaginary world of Middle-earth is nonetheless an upbeat outing suitable for all others.

In this first installment of a trio of prequels to Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-03) – also based on Tolkien’s fiction – homebody hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finds his contented existence within the safe confines of Middle-earth’s Shire region disturbed by the arrival on his doorstep of magisterial wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).

Gandalf has seemingly unlikely plans for timid Bilbo: He wants him to accompany and aid a group of dwarves on a dangerous quest. Led by their sturdy chieftain Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarves – a crude but spirited lot who descend on Bilbo’s house at Gandalf’s invitation – are out to recapture their ancient stronghold, Erebor. Once a storehouse for the dwarves’ fabulous wealth, Erebor was long ago conquered by Smaug, a rampaging dragon who coveted its vast horde of gold.

Though Bilbo initially wants nothing to do with the dwarves’ perilous mission, in the face of Gandalf’s insistence, and perhaps sensing his own destiny, he eventually relents.

The heroism of ordinary people and the potential for everyday goodness to subdue evil are the primary themes of the long, combat-heavy adventure that follows. Tolkien’s tale can be viewed as a sort of prophecy, foretelling the down-to-earth courage with which his British compatriots would soon confront the onslaught of the Nazi war machine.

As Bilbo proves his mettle, the corrupting effects of power are also showcased through his encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis), a cave dweller obsessed with –
and spiritually enslaved by – a magical ring.

Gollum’s grasping character also may relate to the current events of the 1930s, given that the period between the world wars saw the rise of numerous dictators bent on aggression and acquisition. But the endurance of the story in which he appears suggests that his traits may have a broader moral application as well.

The film contains much bloodless action violence and some mild gross-out humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

(By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service )

‘Life of Pi’

Audience:
A-III – adults

 

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Confused religious message mars teen tale

Religious themes are central to director Ang Lee’s visually artful screen version of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel “Life of Pi” (Fox). Indeed, this exotic 3-D fable bills itself as a story calculated to make the agnostic reporter (Rafe Spall) to whom its unlikely events are recounted “believe in God.”

Regardless of whether it has that effect on audiences, Catholic moviegoers will certainly welcome its positive portrayal of their faith, and the presence in the tale of a sympathetic priest.

The fact that the earnest spiritual quest of its protagonist results in his simultaneous adherence to Hinduism, Christianity and Islam is, however, problematic to say the least. All the more so, since screenwriter David Magee’s script implicitly upholds this ultra-tolerant but illogical stance.

Concern over youthful viewers’ reaction to this interreligious will-o’-the-wisp is the major element precluding endorsement of Lee’s picture for any but adults.

And just who is our main character? Played in adulthood by Irrfan Khan but portrayed for most of the running time in his 17-year-old persona by Suraj Sharma, he is an Indian-born Canadian known formally as Piscine Militor Patel –
but called Pi for short.

As flashbacks under the guise of memories being shared with the unnamed –
and unbelieving – journalist reveal, Pi was bred in the picturesque former French enclave of Pondicherry. Growing up contentedly amid the natural beauty of the area, Pi was fascinated by the wondrous creatures that inhabited the zoo his parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu) owned.

Discovering God in varied manifestations during the initial stages of the quest referenced above, Pi also made a less exalted discovery by falling for a local girl. So when Mom and Dad announced, shortly afterward, they were moving the family to the Great White North, Pi was crushed.

Upheaval turned to tragedy when the freighter carrying Pi's family – as well as some of the animals from their former zoo – sank in a terrible squall. Pi was the only human survivor. But his endurance was immediately put to a further test when he found himself forced to share a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

Not for the impressionable or the poorly catechized, this psychological parable, whose meaning cannot be explained without spoilers, also becomes somewhat taxing as the rigors of the lad’s unusual ordeal begin to rub off on viewers.

Aesthetic judgments will likely hinge on the degree to which audiences summon the hardiness necessary to follow Pi’s adventures through to the end. Assessed from a religious perspective, his fictional memoir registers as honorable but ultimately somewhat misguided.

The film contains a complex treatment of religious faith requiring mature interpretation, potentially upsetting scenes of life-threatening danger and animal aggression, some mildly vulgar wordplay and fleeting scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service