Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


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The Hobbit (2012)
Peter Jackson
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen
Release Date:
Age Rating:
An overly cautious hobbit named Bilbo Baggins gets caught up in an epic adventure to reclaim the lost gold of a band of 13 dwarves from the villainous dragon Smaug.

Peter Jackson is taking audiences back to Middle Earth once more with his latest take on the enduring work of J.R.R. Tolkien. 11 years on from The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is taking us right back to the beginning of the tale of the magical finger ornamentation.

Tolkien’s original book (published in 1937) is a delightful fantasy adventure that has been thrilling children for generations. It is also a much simpler and more openly entertaining work than the sometimes dense Lord of the Rings trilogy, including little of the forensic historical detail that the later books contained.

To some degree, that tone is reflected in Jackson’s adaptation – which was penned by the director alongside frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and newcomer Guillermo del Toro. The opening hour in particular contains a good portion of buffoonery and the rest sticks quite closely to the source material, often sticking word for word to Tolkien’s (rather excellent) dialogue.

But there are plenty of changes too in An Unexpected Journey – chiefly focussed on creating a degree of intimacy and immediacy which was rarely Tolkien’s strong point. That’s bourne out a vastly increased action quotient but also some clever structural differences. Jackson’s version pushes a history lesson on the dragon Smaug right to the front of the tale, foregrounding the importance of the Arkenstone and the treasure lust of the dwarves while also adding some touches of spectacle in a tour of the underground city of Erebor at its height.

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In many ways, the film is as much about Thorin (Richard Armitage) as it is about Bilbo (Martin Freeman), as we get more of his backstory than anyone else’s. Robbed of his kingdom, Thorin is also forced to watch hisfather die in combat – an action which sets in motion a new, more concrete villain for the piece which will help to make things more comprehensible as the stakes grow ever higher in future adventures.

In many ways, An Unexpected Journey is a very clever film. It takes Tolkien’s tale and embellishes it with intimate and emotional details as well as giving Ian McKellen’s Gandalf more to do. These scenes, coupled with an opening framing story starring Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, make solid connections to the LOTR trilogy with references to Sauron and a direct link to the start of Fellowship without ever descending into the dull connect the dots of something like Revenge of the Sith.

But clever is not quite the same as entertaining and Jackson’s latest struggles to really enthral for a significant portion of its nearly three hour running time. Without the advantage of having a fresh fantasy world to introduce, we’re left with the need to introduce thirteen new characters who all look more or less alike with no time to distinguish between them and a quest which, at its outset, involves a lot of trudging around on horses.

Jackson does what he can to keep things lively through the addition of a horde of action scenes – some which are hinted at in the novels while others are invented wholesale. Most are well handled (bar some messy changes to the troll face off) but sometimes come off as a way to pad out the film. And not all changes are successful – the Bilbo character is especially problematic. Unlike in the books, he does nothing to prove his worth for quite some time. The intentions of the filmmakers in this regard are pretty clear, they’re saving his competence for a more dramatic moment, but the result is a marginalisation of a character who is supposed to stand in for the audience. If anything Freeman makes little impression throughout.

An Unexpected Journey dawdles a little for its opening 120 minutes but makes a change for the better in its closing act. The move to the Misty Mountains not only leads to legitimate scenes of action but also contains the films best sequence – those riddles in the dark between Bilbo and Andy Serkis’ Gollum. The latter remains one of the universe’s best characters and he has never looked better on screen, while the almost conversational back and forth of the exchange does wonders for the pacing of the film. Both actors excel in this moment and you’ll be hard pressed to not believe that the wizened and sinewy creature wasn’t really photographed. Elsewhere the action continues right up to those closing titles (which happens after the first encounter with the eagles) and with a glimpse of their destination at the Lonely Mountain.

The LOTR trilogy suffered from some iffy CG at times but you won’t find that repeated here. The massive world is impeccably rendered and the predominately CG enemies are practically photo real. It’s a stunning looking film, with new and returning locations, architecture and props all doing justice to the depth of the world the filmmakers have created. But if Weta Digital has done peerless work here, it might not be to the benefit of the film. There’s an antiseptic quality to the CG brawling, the fights look altogether too clean and slick and easy. It’s a considerable contrast to the rough and gritty stabbings and decapitations of the older trilogy and, combined with a tendency for far too much quick cutting, makes most of the battles a little uninvolving.

And that’s not the end of the technical issues of the film. Depending on your location (and determination) you could catch An Unexpected Journey not only in IMAX but also 3D and at High Frame Rate. The combination of all three was too much for this critics brain pan, leading to some eye strain and the need for a break from the lenses. That 48 fps motion has been the source of much controversy. The unvarnished truth? Natural, human motion (i.e. something we’re very familiar with) looks very strange at the beginning, while fast camera pans are juddery and difficult to watch. The copious CG on the other hand looks incredible, though fans of over the top 3D might be disappointed as its generally subtle. Your brain does adjust to the motion after a time but for now I would consider the high frame rate purely optional.

GollumEnlarge Enlarge

If I’ve said little of the performances that’s because there isn’t much to say. With so many fights, chases and story to power through, few characters get more than a few lines – particularly the all but amorphous band of dwarves. Armitage’s Thorin stands out the most because he’s actually given the chance to, leading the films best song – which isn’t really saying much. Ian McKellen does his Gandalf thing as you might expect and the returning players are all good to see – from Hugo Weaving to Christopher Lee and a genuinely ageless Cate Blanchett. Freeman is fine as young Bilbo. He’s a deliberate performer, generally more at home in a world of quips and awkward pauses, and doesn’t quite fit into this world. He gets little enough screen time and doesn’t exactly excel in the drama department but he has potential and absolutely nails the dialogue heavy exchange with Gollum.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a competent starting point for what promises to be one of the most financially successful trilogies of all time. Fans of the book will be mostly satisfied and those who have only seen the original trilogy with find enough context to get by. High fantasy at this scale is a rare thing in cinemas and it should certainly be experienced, at least partly to marvel at the technical achievements and how they have progressed in a decade. It remains definitively inferior to 2001s The Fellowship of the Ring (arguably the best fantasy film of the millennium) and drags its feet for its opening hours, contributing to that bloated running time. But there’s potential in the new paths it forges and plenty of adventures left before this hobbit can find his way home.

Watch our interview with star Aidan Turner here.

7 Stars
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