‘Cinderella’ retells the story we’ve all imagined

If our obsession with Will and Kate’s royal wedding was anything to go by, we love fairy tales! Which is why there’s much to love about a live-action revival of a 1950’s animated classic.

“Cinderella” screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh tastefully transform a tale as old as time into a magical 105-minute picture.

Part of “Cinderella’s” charm lies with its lead, a good and wholehearted heroine that we can emulate. Lily James’s very likable and animated as Ella. She has a happy childhood with her father (Ben Chaplin) and her mother (Hayley Atwell) until her parents pass away. But as the story goes, she’s mistreated by her cruel and jealous stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two gaudy stepsisters (played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) while she bears a grin, talks to mice and lives by her mother’s maxim, “Have courage and be kind.”

Filmed by Haris Zambarloukos and edited by Martin Walsh, “Cinderella” is visually stunning and shows off Sandy Powell’s costume designs. There’s an ariel shot of Ella’s two stepsisters in bed surrounded by frumpy dresses. James looks gorgeous in blue — spinning in the prince’s arms. And Blanchett makes a pretty picture in a vibrant green dress that would make Scarlett O’Hara jealous (this one’s not made out of curtains).

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella's stepmother, the Lady Tremaine?

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s stepmother? 

Although Weitz and Branagh’s live-action version follows a safe and predictable script, it sweeps us off our feet in the same fashion as Kate Middleton’s real-life “Cinderella” story. 

Prince Charming goes by the name as Kit (Richard Madden), and pretends he’s an apprentice at the castle. Courtesy of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Ella attends his ball dressed up as a princess. And they — like Prince William and Kate Middleton — lived happily ever after.

“Cinderella” was directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Chris Weitz. 


‘Game of Thrones’ meets ‘Mortal Engines’ in ‘Seeker’

Editor’s Note: This review is based on an Advanced Reader’s Copy obtained from Delacorte Press, a children’s books division of Random House LLC. Price and page count are tentative.  

For George R.R. Martin fans, the format of Arwen Elys Dayton’s upcoming young adult steampunk/fantasy novel, “Seeker,” is familiar. Like “Game of Thrones,” each chapter alternates points of view, shedding light on teens inheriting their birthrights.

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

By Arwen Elys Dayton
448 pp. Delacorte Press.
$18.99 U.S./$25.99 CAN.
Feb. 10, 2015

There’s 15-year-old Quin Kincaid, a strong and pale, dark-haired beauty who could have been a heroine from a Tamora Pierce novel; 15-year-old Shinobu MacBain, Quin’s handsome half Japanese third cousin; and 16-year-old John Hart, Quin’s brown-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend. The three are vying to be Seekers, mysterious sworn assassins who topple evil dictators and right wrongs. Armed with time traveling stones called athames (pronounced ATH-uh-mays), Seekers have “the power of life and death.” But as these young Seeker apprentices soon learn, the boundaries of good and evil aren’t always clear.

Dayton creates a promising world, rich with history, betrayal and revenge that it might remind you of a cross between Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series and Phillip Reeve’s YA steampunk “Predator Cities” quartet. John’s family is from a long line of Seekers whose prestige has been stolen by Quin’s father, Briac Kincaid. John’s quest for vengence brings him to the Kincaid’s large, pastoral Scottish estates, where he trains to be a Seeker — hoping to regain his family’s former wealth and power.

Like other YA novels, “Seeker” is build on unsteady foundation and the insecurities of rash, naive and volatile teenagers. The love triangle between Quin, Shinobu and John is present and unnecessary — as if Dayton’s trying to follow the footsteps of “Twilight,” “Hunger Games” and dozens of other successful book-to-movie YA franchises (“Seeker” already has a movie in the works). This makes the book unbalanced as the characters compete for dominance.

While multi-perspective stories can work very well if the world and people are fully fleshed out, “Seeker” is more plot driven than character driven. Sure, Quin, Shinobu and John have loose motives, but unlike Jon Snow the bastard, Tyrion the dwarf or even Jaime Lannister (later in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series), Dayton’s characters are missing those endearing character flaws that make George R.R. Martin’s characters so memorable.

Instead, Dayton relies on gimmicky out-of-sequence chronology to make her trilogy unpredictable. She jumps from present to past to future, teasing us before launching into the characters’ backstories. One minute, Dayton’s young heroes and heroines are fighting on Scottish estates. Eighteen months later, they’re flying airships and diving into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.

Despite its formulaic plot device and lack of focus, the mystery surrounding the Seekers may compel readers to finish the 448-page novel. The most fascinating character is Maud, a young “Dread” — one of the keepers of the Seeker’s rich history (She’s introduced about a third into the novel).

“Seeker” may be a very diluted retelling of “A Song of Ice and Fire” — trying to build another fast-paced young adult book empire. Unfortunately, it might not have all the answers we’re seeking.

“Seeker” was written by Arwen Elys Dayton and will be released on February 10, 2015. 

‘Red Rising’: building a legend

Perhaps “South Park” perpetuated the myth that “gingers have no souls.” Or perhaps the stereotype’s actually came from Biblical times. Whatever the case, 16-year-old Darrow of the Lambda clan is a ginger. Or, as society calls him, a “Red.”

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

“Red Rising”
By Pierce Brown
416 pp. Random House. $15.96.

In Pierce Brown’s post-apocalyptic debut fantasy/sci-fi novel, “Red Rising” — which takes place more than 700 years after man first toiled on Mars, Colors are everything. As a Red, Darrow’s lower than the fiery-red dirt he spends his day mining under the city of Mars. As a Red, he’s the proletariat, the simple-minded working class, “the backs in which all the other Colors are built on.” But his Hell is eased by smartly disguised Edward Bernays-style propaganda.

“They told us we were man’s only hope,” said Darrow. “That Earth was overcrowded, that all the pain, all the sacrifice, was for mankind. Sacrifice is good. Obedience the highest virtue….”

They, of course, are Hitler’s visions of a superior master race. The Aryan Golds are Darrow’s oppressors, ruled by ArchGovernor Nero au Augustus. The Golds are born faster, stronger, smarter, crueler, bigger and more beautiful — commanding the fleets and highest offices of political power. They are the Machiavellian gods of this futuristic dystopia — who reward and punish (but mostly punish). That’s what they did to Darrow’s father and his wife, Eo.

But, as history has told us again and again, people aren’t happy with suppression. Look at the French and American Revolutions. The Civil Wars. Hundreds and thousands of men have died (and still do) for their ideals.

Brown (who would be a servant in the social hierarchy he created) weaves together a tale of legend, drawing heavily from Greek and Roman myths. The Red clans are letters from the Greek alphabet. The Golds are named after characters from Shakespeare plays: Cassius (“Julius Caesar”), Julian (Julius, “Julius Ceasar”), Antonia (Antonio, “The Merchant of Venice”), and Titus (“Titus Andronicus”).

Darrow’s odyssey teaches him about love and revenge, peace and war. Darrow’s Helen was stolen from him. So Darrow (which come from Old English rather than Latin origins meaning spear) is transformed into a weapon: a Trojan horse infiltrating the Gold empire.

“Red Rising” is reminiscent of many other stories: Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” and Glen A. Larson’s “Battlestar Galactica,” just to name a few. But these stories, like the Greek and Roman myths, are just as important as the works of Homer and Virgil, Plato and Aristotle. Someday, we might not remember where these myths originated from, but rather the stories that kept them alive.

“Red Rising” is the first book of Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” trilogy. Its sequel, “Golden Son,” was released January 6, 2015. 

Art imitates life in animated film ‘The Boxtrolls’

Monstrosity comes in all forms. Or so we learn from Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s existential animated 3D stop-motion picture, “The Boxtrolls.”

Based on Alan Snow’s children’s book trilogy, “Here Be Monsters!”, the 96-minute Laika Entertainment film (the production company responsible for “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”) is a steampunk adventure that explores the meaning of humanity. As the film begins, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kinsley) leads a couple of henchmen through the hilly and windy cobblestone streets of Cheesebridge. Their mission: the virtuous deed of capturing and killing these vile nocturnal Gollum-sized creatures fabled to eat human children; these villainous fiends are called boxtrolls.

According to Snatcher, boxtroll extermination is a noble occupation and his key into the privileged cheese-eating royal ruling guild of white hats Lord Portley-Rinds (Jared Harris), Sir Langsdale (Maurice LaMarche), Sir Broderick (James Urbaniak) and Boulanger (Brian George).

His henchmen follow willingly enough, but don’t share Snatcher’s conviction.

“Do you think boxtrolls understand the duality of good and evil?” asks henchman Mr. Pickles (voiced by Richard Ayoade).

“They must,” answers Mr. Trout (Nick Frost). “Or else why would they hide from us? We are the good guys.”

Except good and evil aren’t clearly defined in Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s script. While Snatcher shares “Despicable Me’s” Gru’s portly form, his attitude resembles Robert Helpmann’s child catcher from the 1968 classic “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Meanwhile, the boxtrolls are small and childlike, fascinated by round items likes gears and clocks. They talk in an adorable nonsensical babble. And call each other by the labels on the boxes in which they hide in.

Naturally, we fall in love with them. With their oblong heads and glow-in-the-dark yellow eyes, they resemble other animated cuties like “Despicable Me’s” minions.

Their underground lair is the rich and intricate treasure troves in “Wall-E.” Their most precious item: a baby boy (voiced by Isaac Hemstead Wright of “Game of Thrones” fame) fascinated by the lullabies from broken wind-up toys and old Italian barbershop quartet records (composed by Dario Marianelli). The boxtrolls call him Eggs. Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) becomes Eggs’ best friend and parental figure. The animation team, comprised of almost 30 members, create a charming montage into the boxtroll’s wondrous world.

But that world dwindles with each of Snatcher’s triumphs.

Like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” conquers tough issues. Brignull and Pava’s screenplay deals with loss as skillfully as J.K. Rowling did when she penned the scene where Sirius Black fell through the veil in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

“Why do we do this, Shoe?” asks Eggs as his boxtroll friends slowly disappear under Snatcher’s reign. “Carry on like everything’s normal?”

The answer, of course, is to live, but what is a life in hiding?

As difficult and grotesque as some of these lessons are, Annable and Stacchi’s film shows that art imitates real life and real life is ugly. Be sure to stick around for the credits, though, as the animators pull back the curtain and reveal the great wizard of Oz himself.

“The Boxtrolls” was directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on Alan Snow’s novel, “Here Be Monsters!” 

GOT’s Hordor and Podrick Payne at NYCC 2014

“This literally came out of the blue,” says Kristian Nairn, the Northern Irish actor who plays the lovable giant, Hordor, in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” franchise. “I was in some musicals and stuff, but this literally changed my life,” he said at the 2014 New York Comic Con.

Nairn and Daniel Portman (who plays Podrick Payne) were two of the guests featured in Comic Con’s “Game of Thrones” fan forum Thursday afternoon, hosted by Wikia’s Eric Moro, GOT Wikia founder Adam Werthead and Marvel Wikia founder Jamie.

Nairn revealed that he’s never read the books; Portman was a huge fanboy before he was casted for his role.

“When I was first cast, I felt pressure from the fans,” says Nairn about reading the books.

The cast compared the books with the show, including age discrepancies between the different mediums.

“You can’t have an eight or nine year old killing people,” says Portman, “just like you can’t have a 10 year old in a brothel.”

Portman blushed when a fan asked him to comment on the brothel scene. Also when a fan asked him what it’s like to play opposite Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth. She’s 6″3′ while he’s 5″11′.

So what did they learned from their experiences?

“Carrying children,” says Nairn. That and asking permission for things.

Portman says it takes a lot of practice on horses to look bad at horse riding.


Magnificent ‘Maleficent’

Fractured fairy tales often recycle the same tropes (look at “Frozen” or “Jack the Giant Slayer”), but Robert Stromberg’s “Maleficent” is a beautiful, new rendition of an age-old story.

Written by Linda Woolverton (who worked on half a dozen Disney movies including “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Alice In Wonderland”), “Maleficent” does with “Sleeping Beauty” what Gregory Maguire did with “The Wizard of Oz.” Woolverton re-imagines the story from the villain’s perspective.

Maleficent (played by Isobelle Molloy, Ella Purnell and the magnificent Angelina Jolie) is a good, peaceful fairy, who guards and protects the magical land of Moors. She falls in love with a human boy (Michael Higgins and Jackson Bews) who becomes a greedy man (Sharlto Copley) that rules the human kingdom.

King Stefan rapes Maleficent to earn his title. And thus, Maleficent becomes Charles Dickens’ Miss. Havisham from “Great Expectations” — the jilted old woman in her wedding dress. Her “Estella” on men is her magic. So she curses Stefan’s only daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), to an endless sleep upon her 16th birthday.

Stromberg — an Academy Award winning visual effects artist whose credits include  “The Hunger Games,“Life of Pi”, “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” — makes a stunning directorial debut with “Maleficent.” The scenes in the Moors are heavenly — full of vibrant colors and creatures. He (along with more than 500 visual effects artists) shows off Jolie’s high cheekbones, piercing eyes and plump lips.

Jolie, herself, is radiant in this role — vengeful and glowing with wicked glee as she gifts Princess Aurora. But this Maleficent is also forgiving and fierce; sweet and savage; motherly and mischievous. She saves a raven whom she turns into a man (Sam Riley). And she’s not too different from Khaleesi from George R.R. Martin’s epic “Game of Thrones” saga.

Though Maleficent’s certainly ethereal, she’s more humane than her human counterparts. Copley’s character longs for a seat on the Iron Throne; his obsession with the crown rivals those playing in the “Game of Thrones.” All would be well, of course, if he’d give Maleficent her dragons.

“Maleficent” was directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton. The movies based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant” and Jacob and Wilheim Grimm’s “La Briar Rose.”

The fault in Season 2 of ‘Orange Is the New Black’

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” Cassius tells Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Ceasar.” That, too, seems to be a recurring theme in Season 2 of writer Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black.”

The 13-episode second season of the highly anticipated prison drama — based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” — was released for streaming on Netflix last Friday.

After serving months in the Litchfield Correctional Facility for her association with her former drug-dealing girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is transferred to a Chicago prison, where she awaits trial.

Her new bunkmate’s (Rebecca Drysdale) an astrology nut who believes destiny’s in the stars. “Typically, people in prison are led astray by a powerful outside force,” she tells Piper.

But these women dug their own graves.

Kohan’s episodes feature flashbacks into the lives of the Litchfield inmates. There’s Miss. Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) — a terminally ill cancer patient who used to rob banks; Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) — an ex-communicated Catholic nun known for her activism; and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) — an orphan whose closest person to a mother is Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a conniving criminal who’s back in jail.

But even if these woman are underlings, their faces and voices aren’t forgotten. We fall in love with Kohan’s characters — played by a wonderfully diverse and talented ensemble cast. It’s a smart, calculated formula. Kohan can seamlessly introduce and kill off new characters like George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thones.” And while we curse the injustice, we’ll still be binge-watching.

So it’s no coincidence, of course, that Season 2 of “Orange Is New Black” was released the same day as the film adaptation of John Green’s teen cancer novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.” Kohan (who also created Showtime’s “Weeds”) fills her script with pop culture references — from World of Warcraft to Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid.”  One of the inmates is even reading “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Like Green’s story, Kohan’s is hauntingly beautiful — filled with hope and heartbreak. Because no matter where the fault lies, prison’s supposed to be unjust.

“Orange Is the New Black” was written and created by Jenji Kohan.

Once upon a time on ‘Thor: The Dark World’…

According to Celtic myths, Samhain, the first of November, marks the end of summer — when ghosts, spirits and fairies can haunt our world. People honored the dead by dressing up in costume, going door-to-door for food — a tradition memorialized in the modern Halloween festivities.

So perhaps it’s fitting that “Thor: The Dark World” was released in Samhain (the Irish word for November) — days after U.S. daylights savings time. The dead return to our world as the day grows shorter and darker.

The second of Marvel’s post-Avenger’s films (the first was this summer’s “Iron Man 3”), “Thor: The Dark World” chronicles the Convergence — a once in a blue moon phenomenon when nine planets overlap and objects can be seamlessly transported from one place to another.

Normally, that would be a magical wonder — one that astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) explains with science. But the legend of Thor’s made out of the stuff from myths and fairy tales.

No, not Disney’s “Tarzan” (although Jane and Thor did have a few Tarzan moments when he fell out of the sky in the first Thor movie).

This fairy tale is made of grimmer stuff — the kind where fairies stole you away like the Pied Piper.

The dark fairies in this story are from the Unseelie Court, led by dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith created a liquid weapon called Aether, which is supposed to bring darkness to the world.

While Asgardians stopped Malekith’s evil plot years ago, the Convergence would be the perfect opportunity for the dark elves to try again: unleashing darkness on all nine worlds, including Earth.

That’s the backdrop to this movie, and Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay’s layered like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

On one level, they’re dealing with the aftermath of “The Avenger’s” and the alien invasion of New York City; prisoner-of-war Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is brought back to his home planet in chains. His hammer-wielding older brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), fights to fix Loki’s mess.

On another level, the writers are threading the plot of the mediocre 2011 “Thor” film — which plays out like a typical Shakespearean rom-com. Jane, her snarky sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) and their mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) return, studying anomalies in Earth’s gravity. Jane feels slighted by her crush Thor, who never contacted her after he abruptly left.

Luckily, the dark elves play matchmaker, and their nefarious plot reunite Jane and Thor.

“Thor: The Dark World” offers a much more dynamic plot-line than its predecessor. Unlike the first Thor movie, which divided its time evenly between the wild magical woods of Asgard and the rigid mundane cities of Earth, time spent in Earth’s brief.

But that doesn’t mean this fairy tale’s “once upon a time” gets a “happily ever after.” After all, the Marvel sagas continue with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in spring 2014 and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” in the summer of 2015.

Unfortunately for us, movie-goers, suffering through each superhero blockbuster until the release of Joss Whedon’s next highly anticipated (and highly lucrative) Avengers movie, most of the characters in this film, including our titular hammer-wielding muscleman, are as flat as the comic book paper they came from.

“If we shadows have offended/ Think but this, and all is mended.” — Puck from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The only exception is Loki (and Tom Hiddleston — who won best male newcomer and best villain for his reprising role). The honest trickster god captured our hearts in “Thor” and “The Avengers” and promises to be as mischievous as the prankster Puck.

Just remember (because Shakespeare taught us well): it’s all fun and games until somebody dies.

“Thor: The Dark World” is directed by Alan Taylor of “Game of Thrones” fame; the screenplay was written by Christopher Markus, Christopher Yost and Stephen McFeely, based on Don Payne and Robert Rodat’s story and Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber’s Marvel comic books.

‘Pacific Rim’ contains faint pulse

What’s it like to watch when you know a man’s gonna die? What about to share his brain and the feelings inside?

Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother, Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), were once as close as could be. Before Yancy was killed and swept away in the sea. You see, the brothers were a drifter pair, the modern rock stars in a not-so-future society: one where gigantic alien beasts called Kaiju can take down entire cities.

The first attack occurred in San Fran. And six days, 35 miles later, there was not one man — alive or standing in six nearby cities. But don’t you civvies worry: Jaegars got your back. That’s what they call Guillermo del Toro’s ginormous robotic hacks.

These soldiers are slick, modeled like transformers, but powered by men like double-A batteries. Which is why you need drifter pairs: two people working completely in sync, sharing a brain, to power even one of these enormous tin cans. There are several problems with this, but one of them is that humans have a pretty short shelf life — and the humans in “Pacific Rim” have less personality than… say, shape-shifting cars.

After Hunnam’s lulling voice narrates del Toro’s apocalyptic future and his brother’s grisly death (don’t worry, he doesn’t do it in either rhyme or iambic meter, although it doesn’t make it any less cheesy), he disappears for five years, becoming this world’s version of George R. R. Martin’s Night Watch — assigned to build an endless wall in the far north of Alaska that’s supposed to keep the aliens out. But it doesn’t. And as humanity sits on the losing side of the Kaiju War, his old boss, General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), reenlists him into the fight.

Becket’s pretty useless without his brother, so they pair him up with new girl Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to man his old Jaeger, Gipsy. And you might be able to guess what happens next. After all, drifter pairs share a brain and all.

While (the plot of) “Pacific Rim” may sound like another mindless summer blockbuster billed for its action and formulaic structure (remember “Battleship”?), composer Ramin Djawadi (you may know him as the orchestral composer to TV series like “Game of Thrones” and “Prison Break”) gives the movie a pulse. His music mirrors the loud thumping noises of a heartbeat in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “A Tell-Tale Heart,” containing the steady, rhythmic beats of Shakespearean poetic meter. Or the thump-thump-thumps of a Kaiju’s or Jaeger’s footsteps; neither alien nor robot can move without creating earthquakes.

At times it’s like electronic dance music, keeping the party going. At other times, it’s much softer — weak, but kicking. But not even Djawadi’s music can keep the movie from submerging.

The screenplay, written by del Toro and Travis Beacham based on Beacham’s story, is so predictable that you can guess who’s going to die minutes before they do so. Del Toro and Beacham throw you plenty of clues, of course.

“The water’s getting higher,” says one drifter pair.

But this futuristic apocalypse doesn’t hold as much depth as del Toro’s WWII-era films. For one, despite their sheer size, aliens and robots are disappointing compared to the personalities of the freaks in “Hellboy” and the faun and Pale Male in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” At least those monsters could be scary. In contrast, the Kaiju/aliens in “Pacific Rim” look like watered-down Spielberg monsters; no, not E.T., but rather the shark in “Jaws” and the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” There’s nothing wrong with that, per say, but we can’t help thinking we’ve seen this before.

And for the most part, we have. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro shows another little girl lost in a maze — only this maze is in her head: her traumatic memories.

But at least “Pacific Rim’s” entertaining if you don’t take it seriously. One of the film’s gags involves black marketer Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman, known for his stint as “Hellboy”) and his gold-tipped shoes. And other humorous fun involves “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” Charlie Day as the overly enthusiastic Kaiju scientist, Dr. Newton Geiszler.

“Pacific Rim” may be another mindless summer blockbuster, but at least this one’s got a pulse, however faint it may be.

“Pacific Rim” was directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Travis Beacham.

‘The Hobbit’: A Road Still Travelled

Old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is telling young Frodo (Elijah Wood) a story, carefully crafting his words, while we are either intruding on a private moment and hobbit hole in the Shire — or perhaps we are Frodo, listening to Uncle Bilbo’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” After all, it is an extraordinary story — complete with marvelous kingdoms and fantastic beasts (from dragons and orcs, to dwarves and elves, to goblins and trolls). But just as Bilbo Baggins is teasing you with how fire-breathing dragons destroyed a dwarf kingdom in the first minute of the movie, director Peter Jackson takes you away from the scene and places you into the idyllic greenery of the Shire — home of Mr. Bilbo Baggins himself.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” based off of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again,” is the first of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy and the prequel to his three “Lord of the Rings” films. The first of three chapters introduces Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a fretful hobbit concerned about handkerchiefs and his ancient china. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up on his doorstep with about a dozen dwarves including Thorin (Richard Armitage) — son Thrain, the son of Thror, the king of the besieged dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain — Gandalf recruits Bilbo on a journey to reclaim the land the dwarves lost.

Unlike “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is much lighter, without any Grim Reapers or Ringwraiths casting long shadows like Dementors over the traveling party. At times, the dwarves’ folk songs make you wonder if you’ve fallen into a musical. After all, the dwarves gleefully goad Bilbo when singing, “Blunt the Knives.” Other times, you wonder if you’ve entered the ideal Dungeons and Dragons campaign, where a band of friends work together to accomplish a common goal. Along the way, there may be heroes — but it’s the performance of everyone in the production that carries that campaign and film.

Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, fussing over his material goods while the lively dwarves rearrange his furniture and pillage his pantry. It’s amusing to watch how frustrated Bilbo appears as he helplessly watches dwarves invade his home. From an anxious individual to a courageous companion, one of the highlights of the film is watching Bilbo grow as a character, reluctantly accepting the journey, and leaving the comfort of his books and maps. In one pivotal moment in the film, Bilbo is facing Gollum (Andy Serkis) with a life-or-death game of riddles. Quick in both feet and thought, Bilbo is seen confronting his fears, rather than deny the challenge.

The screenplay, written in collaboration by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, also develops Thorin’s character well beyond Tolkien’s words. Bearing a wooden branch as a shield, Thorin is frequently seen as David facing a pale and monstrous Goliath — a pale white orc almost three times his side. Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin is as a strong, prideful and courageous leader, whose honorable goals have won the respect of both dwarves and audience members alike. Even though Armitage is seen criticizing the tag-a-long hobbit in his company, Armitage’s nuanced portrayal of the dwarf prince allows us to understand him. Thorin and his band of merry dwarves will protect Bilbo with their lives despite how many times Thorin may quip about how burdensome the hobbit is.

The screenplay also makes Gandalf’s role as the deus ex machina very apparent in the film. Every time the company of miniature men is about to be killed or roasted alive, Gandalf’s mysterious and god-like appearance saves the day with his magic. Once again, McKellan adopts the role as adviser and protector — but at times, you find yourself shaking your head and smiling as the underdogs escape death again and again. Compared to an audience that may be used to more modern epic narratives like the “Game of Thrones” books or HBO series — known for author R. R. Martin’s fondness for killing favorite characters — the constant saving seems cheap.

However, Jackson’s story is very true to Tolkien’s book, albeit some embellishments. While Frodo never appears in “The Hobbit,” fans of the LOTR franchise will be thrilled to see Wood’s cameo in the first part of the film, which bridges “An Unexpected Journey” with “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first of “The Lord of the Rings” saga. With Frodo nailing up party signs, we are witnessing the eve of Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party and seeing the story of his adventure.

The 3D brings the adventure to life so you feel as if you’re immersed in the journey. Gold and rocks fall on you and the traveling company. The beauty of New Zealand is dazzling in its crispness. Despite the expansion of these moments with technology, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is just shy of three hours — and the tale is far from over. The first film of “The Hobbit” trilogy only tackled the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s 300-page book. While Jackson could have told the tale in the first minute recap of the film where he introduced the fire-breathing dragon who housed himself in a dwarf kingdom, Jackson expands the film to span three movies — each probably amassing about three hours in length.

While neither the 3D nor the length are strictly necessary to tell the story of “The Hobbit,” Jackson sums up his argument in Gandalf’s words: “All good stories need embellishment.”

And “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is certainly a good story.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. The movie is based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.”