The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Posted: January 1, 2013 in Film reviews

Ok I know it’s 2013 but technically this is my final review of 2012 as I saw the Hobbit on New Year’s Eve…

***

Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Sir Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage.

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost ten years since The Lord of the Rings trilogy ended with The Return of the King, and though there was talk of adapting The Hobbit, for a long time it appeared that three films was all Middle Earth was going to get. Eventually though it was announced that two Hobbit films were to be made, and they’d be directed by Guillermo del Toro. Due to the ever shifting sands of Hollywood production del Toro dropped out, and Peter Jackson stepped in to direct. The next surprise was that there were no longer going to be two films there were going to be three…and they were going to be filmed in 48 frames per minute (usually films are filmed in 24 frames per minute) and in 3D.

It is 60 years before Frodo and Sam will head off with Aragorn and co to dispose of the One Ring at Mordor, and in this film the much younger Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman (though Ian Holm does pop up in a little prologue), is co-opted by McKellen’s Gandalf to join a party of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) on a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, where the Dwarves once lived until the dragon Smaug laid waste to their mighty city, captured the Dwarves’ treasure and turned them into a race of itinerant refugees. There are many challenges to face before they can get anywhere near the Lonely Mountain however…including an encounter with the creature known as Gollum…

I’ll be honest here. I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films a lot, but I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan. I’ve seen each of them more than once, and in their extended form, but I don’t own them on DVD, and couldn’t tell you the last time I watched one (to be honest the length as much as anything puts me off) but I was still looking forward to the Hobbit, especially given that I have read the book (I never read The Lord of the Rings) although to be honest my memory of it was so hazy I can’t say this had much impact on my viewing pleasure.

The first thing to say is that the film looks amazing, how much of this was down to the higher frame rate I’m not sure. To be honest I wasn’t sure it made that much difference, although at times movement seemed a trifle over exaggerated. Contrary to what certain people may say (I’m looking at you Mark Kermode) it definitely has some impact on the colour loss caused by 3D, or maybe it just fooled me into thinking it did, and I have to say the 3D was probably the least annoying I’ve ever seen. I’m still nowhere near a convert when it comes to 3D, but if it is going to be used this is how it should be employed.

Jackson is helped once again by nature, and the sweeping vistas of New Zealand make for a hugely impressive backdrop, as they did in the earlier (er later?) trilogy. There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in seeing Middle Earth again, further enhanced by the use of familiar music and the appearance of characters we know so well. Primarily this is Gandalf but he is by no means the only familiar face. This is something of a different beast to the previous films however, although it has been made a bit more grown up than Tolkien’s original story. In many respects Jackson appears to be making a prequel trilogy to his first three films, rather than just making The Hobbit.

So, is it any good? Well, perhaps in spite of my preconceptions, yes it is. I enjoyed it a lot, although it perhaps won’t go down in history in the same way The Lord of the Rings films did, frame rate aside this is more of the same rather than anything ground breaking. It will be interesting to see how the next two films play out, but this first one held my interest. It is a long film, and does go on a bit, but I was never bored. That said it would be nice if Jackson could edit his works down a bit, there’s a lot of stuff within An Unexpected Journey that could have been excised, and it’s a shame that every great director (Jackson, Nolan, Spielberg etc.) reaches a point where they become so powerful that they can basically make their films as stodgy as they like. Sometimes less really is more, and maybe this would have been better if a little of the fat had been trimmed off.

Like I say though, it’s impressive to look at, and action packed, and if it doesn’t quite boast the cast of characters that The Lord of the Rings did, that’s not to say it’s lacking in heroes to root for. The Dwarves themselves are amusing, although there are so many you might have trouble remembering more than half of them. Armitage does a great job as Thorin, imbuing the character with enough courage and nobility that you can see why the other dwarves would follow him into hell, whilst still allowing the character his flaws. Aside from Armitage and James Nesbitt the Dwarves are much of a muchness, and it doesn’t help than many of them have very similar names. That said by the end you should be able to tell them apart, even if it’s only by assigning them characteristics; that’s the deaf one, that’s the young one etc.

McKellen slips back into the role of Gandalf as easily as he might return to a pair of well-worn shoes, although he seems to be having more fun returning to Gandalf the Grey than he perhaps had as the stuffier White version he played for most of the previous Trilogy.

Martin Freeman does a good job as Bilbo. Freeman does the put upon everyman very well, and that characterisation suits Bilbo down to the ground. If I hadn’t seen Freeman produce a darker performance as Watson in Sherlock I might have been tempted to suggest he is perhaps a one note performer, and it will be interesting to see how the character changes now that he has the ring.

Which of course brings us to Gollum and another great performance by Serkis, who again returns effortlessly to the character. You have to wonder how many kids have had nightmares about Gollum, because he really is a terrifying, yet also pitiful, character, especially here as he skulks around underground caverns like one of the monsters out of The Descent. It’s a pity he won’t be seen again (at least as far as I recall from my reading of The Hobbit, I could be mistaken.)

An Unexpected Journey has its problems though. Familiarity does breed contempt, and the snippy little cameos do seem a little bit too trite and convenient at times. In the main though its flaws mirror those I had with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and if anything they’re magnified because there’s less other stuff going on here to distract the viewer.

The first of these is the linear nature of the quest. Characters go from A to B to C and face similar trials and tribulations. In particular the escape from the Goblins feels very much like the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Similarly there’s almost the sense that there’s a list to be ticked off; Trolls, check, goblins, check, orcs, check-maybe it’s the nature of the source material, but adding the characters at Rivendell in, plus Radagast and the Necromancer as well and it does feel a little like everything but the kitchen sink’s been thrown in.

My biggest issue though? The almost ever present get out of jail free card that is Gandalf. Seriously just count how many times, in this film alone, he saves the day with some convenient magic in the nick of time. It kinda dents the tension somewhat, and however great McKellen is, at times the film is better when he’s not around.

Overall though as I say I liked it a lot. It’s not going to be the game changing epic in the way The Lord of the Rings trilogy was, it’s overlong and a bit overly comfortable, but it’s also very enjoyable. I just don’t think it’ll ever be regarded as a true classic.

 

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