Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) –  large_5

I apologise for the lateness of this post. Despite seeing An Unexpected Journey just a few days after it was released, I have waited nearly a month before writing my review. The reason for this is because I knew that, without multiple viewings and some distancing time, my review would be little more than “ZOMG! Squee! 5 stars!”, and I wanted to be able to write something a tad more substantial than that. So here I am, four weeks and three viewings later, and I finally feel I’ve calmed down enough to put my thoughts into words.

I can’t remember the last time I was so excited going into a cinema. It was probably when I went to the midnight screening of Revenge of the Sith (Hey, don’t judge!), but even then, I wasn’t this excited. As I sat down in front of the darkened screen, gripping the armrests, and the words ‘A Wingnut Films Production’ appeared on the screen in that font and accompanied by that music, I got goosebumps. The film hadn’t even properly started yet, and I already had goosebumps. It was because I had been waiting for this moment ever since an adaptation of The Hobbit was first announced back in 2006. I knew that no miserable critics or a ‘mediocre’ score of 65% on Rotten Tomatoes was going to put me off. I was going to love this film.

And I was not disappointed. Those goosebumps lasted the entire film and when the screen finally faded back to black, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much.

*

I’ll start by saying that I only saw the film in standard 3D and 2D, so I won’t be able to comment on 48fps. All I know about the high frame rate is from what I’ve read in other reviews, and the fact that my brother loved it and my girlfriend hated it. Based on the backlash 48fps has received and the impact it undoubtedly had on An Unexpected Journey‘s critical standing, it will be interesting to see if it has a future within the industry.

*

Now, on to the film itself. It begins exactly as it should – in a hole in the ground, with a hobbit. Seeing Sir Ian Holm back as the older Bilbo Baggins is a joy (especially considering that this is his first film role since 2007’s Ratatouille) and his narrated prologue is both thrilling and a great way to jump-start the plot. By seeing the fall of Erebor, we are quickly introduced to some of the trilogy’s key players – Thorin Oakenshield, his close friend Balin,  Thranduil the Elvenking, and most importantly, Smaug the dragon – and we also learn about several important plot points – the Arkenstone, where Thorin’s hatred of elves stems from – without Jackson having to later shoehorn in an introduction or an explanation.

By opening with events that take place hundreds of years before the events of the trilogy, it draws clear parallels with The Lord of the Rings, which is never a bad thing. However, the most effective thing about the prologue is not just the great sense of nostalgia at seeing Bilbo and Frodo again, but the fact that we are reminded of the hobbit that Bilbo Baggins will become, which makes our introduction to Martin Freeman’s younger, fussier Bilbo so much better, both comically and dramatically.

*

The scenes that follow the prologue, in which the thirteen dwarves arrive at Bag End and upset Bilbo’s precious normality, have been deemed by many as taking too long and delaying the progression of the story, but I personally found that wasn’t the case. There were so many great moments set in Bilbo’s homestead. There was comedy, there was drama, and there were some fantastic character moments – Bilbo’s brilliantly OTT meltdown over the state of his house is a particular treat. We got two of Tolkien’s original songs (elements of the book I must admit to skipping over), one funny, the other deeply moving. Most importantly, though, we learn of the dwarves quest to reclaim their homeland. It’s hardly meandering and tedious when you think about just how much happens at Bag End.

Many critics seem to use Bag End as evidence that the decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy was an ill advised one. When the third film was first announced, it was met with a chorus of derision, criticised as being a decision made by money hungry executives. How could a book a quarter of the size of The Lord of the Rings warrant a movie trilogy of the same length? Well, when you see what Jackson has done with the material, you realise that the decision to extend the films into a trilogy must have been an easy one to make. The Hobbit is a story that needs extension, it craves to be embellished. Some critics don’t agree. They claim that Jackson has stretched the material too thin, making the film run too long and start too late, citing the ‘tiresome’ opening act as proof.  I personally don’t think that is the case though. I found the film completely riveting and never once became aware of the long running time.

In Jackson’s hands, throwaway lines like “the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rock at one another for a game” become exhilarating set pieces. As good as Tolkien was, The Hobbit is full of underdeveloped ideas like this, so the story contains plenty of opportunity for expansion. Even the book’s big finale, the Battle of Five Armies, only takes up about four pages. With Jackson’s direction, it could (and rightfully should) have an entire hour of cinema dedicated to bringing it to life.

As well as expanding sections of the book, Jackson and his fellow writers have made several additions. These blasphemous deviations away from the source text are actually very important and necessary to the story. The ‘new’ sub-plot involving Dol Guldur, the White Council, and the Necromancer is all in the book. It just happens to take place away from the eyes of the reader. In the final few pages of the book, there is a sentence saying

It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.

While having a main character vanish for half of a story, then turn up at the end and say “Guess what I went and did.” might (just about) work in a book, there is no way such a device would work in a visual medium. The audience will want to see those events take place, not just hear about them. It would be akin to not showing where Luke goes after leaving Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, then having him turn up an hour later on Cloud City saying “Hey, guys. I’m a Jedi now! And I met a little green guy called Yoda!” Dramatically and narratively, it just wouldn’t work, and the same goes for The Hobbit. The additions may be a deviation away from the content of the book, but they are not a deviation from Tolkien.

There are some points where the film does deviate away from the words of Tolkien, but I do not see the alterations as being a bad thing. The changes made by Jackson and co actually give the events of the book a much needed dramatic structure. Similarly to having the elves arrive at Helms Deep and Arwen taking Frodo to Rivendell, giving The Hobbit an antagonist other than Smaug is an effective move. Not only does it contextualise several events of the book, but more importantly it gives Thorin a previously lacking emotional journey.

*

One of the main complaints levelled against An Unexpected Journey is that several of the thirteen dwarves were lacking in characterisation and personality. I must admit that had I not avidly checked TheOneRing.net on a daily basis, eagerly absorbing every bit of Hobbit related news, then I don’t think I would be able to name all the dwarves. While I agree that some of the dwarves lacked individuality, I don’t see it as an entirely bad thing.

Instead of fleshing out all thirteen, Jackson instead focuses on portraying the dwarves as an effective singular unit. This highlights the closeness of the group and emphasises their shared traits, such as their loyalty and fearlessness. He does single out a choice few characters, such as Thorin, Balin, Kíli and Fíli, and Bofur. While this decision does mean that some of the dwarves are left short-changed (I seem to remember poor old Jed Brophy’s Nori only getting one line in the entire movie), it ensures that we care about enough of the individual dwarves to invest our interest into the whole company, such is the nature of their tight-nit group.

The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, so, naturally, the focus of the film is on him. After all, Jackson has two other films to bring the dwarves into the forefront. In this film, however, it is necessary for Jackson and Freeman to make the audience empathises with Bilbo, to make sure he is the one we are all rooting for. By portraying the dwarves as an effective singular unit, and alienating the audience from some of the individual dwarves, Jackson highlights Bilbo’s position as an outsider. He cannot integrate himself into the group and neither can the audience. Our perception of the dwarves is shaped by Bilbo’s and that makes the bond between protagonist and audience stronger. This guarantees that our sympathies and interests are with Bilbo, and this works very well dramatically and makes the emotional arch of An Unexpected Journey a worthy one.

 *

On the more technical side of things, the film is beautifully shot, but we’ve come to expect nothing less from the director who gave us ‘The Lighting of the Beacons’ scene from The Return of the King. There were a few moments, particularly during my first viewing (where I watched the film in a kind of open-mouthed awe), that I actually got tears in my eyes from some of the shots of the New Zealand scenery. There was just something so beautiful and magical about seeing my one-time home back on the big screen, accompanied once again by Howard Shore’s brilliantly rousing, and often nostalgic score. And this time, it was in glorious 3D.

Jackson has never been one to shy away from big action sequences, and An Unexpected Journey is no exception. Like the previously mentioned stone-giants scene, the film’s other set pieces are just as impressive, if not more so. Jackson directs the action with a deft and assured hand, drawing as much excitement and drama out of the sequences as possible. The scene with the three Trolls is beautifully choreographed and contains a great number of brilliant, genuinely funny moments. The escape from Goblin Town is exhilarating and visually spectacular. Both of the Warg sequences are equally thrilling, the latter with some truly edge of your seat moments.

Part of the appeal of returning to Middle-earth is the chance to once again see the stunning work done by Richard Taylor and the rest of Weta Workshop. The sets, the costumes, the prosthetics, and yes, the CGI, all look fantastic. It’s been interesting to see the complaints levelled against the film’s computer animation, especially after the CGI in The Lord of the Rings trilogy was lauded. I personally thought the digital effects looked fantastic, but they do seem to have fallen flat with a lot of people. It’s quite interesting to note that the majority of people who thought the CGI was sub-par are the same people who saw the film in 48fps. Bearing most of the critical brunt is Azog, the pale Orc, but he looked fine to me.

One CGI creation that seems to be above the criticism, and rightfully so because he looked spectacular, is Gollum. I was blown away by Gollum when he first appeared on-screen in The Two Towers. I had never seen a computer generated creation look so real, so flawless. What surprised me about An Unexpected Journey was just how much better he looked. Only Weta Digital would be able to improve on perfection.

*

‘Riddles in the Dark’ is the true stand-out of the film, and not just because of the jaw-dropping CGI. It is fantastic to see Andy Serkis back in the role that made him a household name, and it’s clear that the actor is relishing in the opportunity as well. It’s a great shame that the Academy has yet to acknowledge motion capture as ‘real acting’, because his performance is this film is more than worthy of a ‘Best Supporting Actor’ nomination. He injects Gollum with with far more feral menace than before, and Sméagol is more childlike and playful, but Serkis manages to combine these two contrasting personalities into a creature who is deserving both Bilbo’s fear and his pity. Gollum’s rage at losing the ring coupled with Sméagol utter despair makes for a touchingly poignant moment of cinema.

Of course, not all of the success of ‘Riddles in the Dark’ can be heaped onto just Andy Serkis, because it’s equally down to Martin Freeman, who gives a truly astonishing performance. When Freeman’s casting was first announced, I wasn’t sure how I felt. I liked him, liked the grounded every-man routine he did so well, but I wasn’t sure how successful he’d be in a role as demanding as Bilbo Baggins. But then I watched The Reichenbach Fall, and Waston’s graveside plea to Holmes broke my heart. I suddenly understood why Freeman had been Jackson’s only choice.

Martin Freeman excels in this film. His every-man routine (every-hobbit in this case) is used to great effect, and his comic timing and deadpan delivery is, as always, impeccable. What truly impresses about his performance however, is how layered and understated it is. Be it the uncomfortable body-language, the subtle facial ticks, or the way his voice cracks slightly, there is certainly more to this hobbit than meets the eye. Just watch the way that Bilbo’s wide, naive eyes start to harden over the course of the film. It’s an astounding piece of acting that will undoubtedly catapult him into the realms of super-stardom.

*

The rest of the cast are equally brilliant. The returning actors all fit comfortably back into their roles and seem to be having a blast. Hugo Weaving’s Lord Elrond is a much more light-hearted character here – he smiles more in this film than he did in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy – and his playful interactions with Gandalf show a great friendship we didn’t get to see last time. Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Saruman is still sombre and superior, but his character is slightly more genial this time round, and his angry rants about Radagast are hilarious. The never ageing Cate Blanchett once again plays Galadriel with a mix of beauty and otherworldliness, giving the character a necessary disconcerting  edge. Ian McKellen is once again fantastic as Gandalf, injecting the Grey wizard with both a weariness and a previously unseen mischievous streak. Self-deprecating and quick to anger, it’s impossible not to like the cranky old wizard, and Ian McKellen plays him with a  heart-warming compassion that’s really quite affecting.

The new actors are also excellent. Richard Armitage has the toughest role as the brash and untrusting Thorin Oakenshield, but he is able to fill him with enough honour and sorrow to keep him on the right side of sympathetic. Armitage’s portrayal shows a character with a thick and proud skin, but makes sure that the pain of past failures is present in his eyes. As his trust for Bilbo grows, so does his likeability as a character. It’s an assured performance of a flawed character by an actor at the top of his game.

The rest of the dwarves all play their parts just as well, particularly Ken Stott’s sage Balin, who brings a warm and fatherly attitude to the proceedings. James Nesbitt as Bofur is another highlight, portraying the character with his trademark cheeky smile and a twinkle in his eye, and his protecting nature towards Bilbo is really quite touching. Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as Kíli and Fíli are very effective as well, all wide shoulders and swagger, eager to impress those around them. I also took a particular shine to Mark Hadlow as Dori and his constant cries of “Mister Gandalf!” The look on his face when Gandalf turns down a cup of chamomile is priceless.

On a whole, the cast seem to be having a whale of a time, particularly Barry Humphries and Sylvester McCoy in their respective roles as the Great Goblin and Radagast the Brown. Based on the overall strength of the cast, it will be exciting to see the actors who appeared briefly in An Unexpected Journey expand their roles in the later films, especially Lee Pace and Benedict Cumberbatch.

*

Don’t go in expecting The Lord of the Rings, because The Hobbit is a very different beast. Just as epic, just as grand, but An Unexpected Journey is a lighter, funnier affair, just like the book it is based on. Full of exciting action and brilliant characters, the long awaited prequel doesn’t disappoint. The sense of nostalgia is fantastic to experience, but An Unexpected Journey more than stands up on its own two feet.

Oh, and the final shot will give you shivers.

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