adventure, Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, fantasy, Gandalf, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellan, J.R.R. Tolkien, James Nesbitt, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Sylvester McCoy, The Hobbit, The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey, Thorin Oakenshield
The entirety of The Lord of the Rings trilogy hadn’t even been released in cinemas before fans started gleefully speculating the possibility of the story’s forebear undergoing similar adaptation. Around a decade later those hopes have culminated in the arrival of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finally reaching cinemas but it was not an easy journey. The production was hit with various delays and changes of staff with Guillermo del Toro originally locked to direct eventually backing out, his replacement Peter Jackson being affected by illness, problems with the availability of the desired star and various financing hurdles. More recently creative decisions have caused a considerable stir among fans, namely the decision to split the story into not just two but three books.
Here’s my take on this. I believe immutably that absolutely anything can work if the execution is there. One of the chief concerns among hardcore Tolkien fans about the Rings trilogy is that a huge amount of the material was (necessarily) stripped and this was despite all three films being close to three hours in length. What the three part approach to adapting The Hobbit allows is license to not only include everything in the book but a lot of interesting side-stories left untold in the book can also now be told. I will agree that finding enough to fill three features seems challenging given the relatively light source material and although the first film cuts at a sensible place it is tough to see where the second can break. However Peter Jackson is a brilliant filmmaker and a trust him to make the right creative decisions and I believe he will deliver. I reject completely the suggestion that the decision was made to squeeze more money out of the project. Yes, the films will make more money this way but PJ is not the kind of director who is concerned by that, remember he originally pitched The Lord of the Rings as two films, and his decision was based on his own desire to tell the story his way.
One thing I cannot comment on is the question of High Frame Rate. This is the first film ever made in 48 frames per second, twice the usual 24, something that is meant to improve the immersion and clarity of picture and 3D. I didn’t see the film in HFR, I actually saw it at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, a cinema without digital projectors and therefore unable to project HFR since it is only available in digital, but I will be going back to sample this alternative. There have been some grumblings that HFR makes the film look as real as a soap opera but since there is a wide variety choice available (2D, 3D, IMAX 3D, HFR 3D, HFR IMAX 3D) there’s no sense in complaining about it.
If you need an overview of the plot of The Hobbit read my review of the book, I can’t be bothered to recount it here. All you need to know is that the film tells the story up until (spoiler dodge) the bit with the eagles. The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, taking time to introduce and spend time with the title character, Gandalf and the central company of thirteen dwarves before setting out on the quest which romps from adventure to adventure with the easy likeability of the great adventure stories of history. This is not a film concerned with getting anywhere fast and once the scene-setting prologue has elapsed not a whole lot happens to the heroes other than a number of encounters with various antagonists. But this is not a bad thing.
The problem with film is that by its nature it is not well disposed to long, lingering stories, certainly not in the same way that a book, television series or videogame can be. The structure and length of this first Hobbit film allows the narrative to linger with its characters and savour the world of its creation. This is a film best viewed with a relaxed attitude and the desire to lose oneself in its immersive magic and this is exactly what I was able to do. This is comfortable, hypnotic linear adventure storytelling that provides memorable characters, enjoyable action and spectacle and a wonderful welcoming tone. The CGI is better than ever, the cinematography will effortlessly make you fall in love with New Zealand all over again and the superb cast are note-perfect throughout.
Like the book the film does struggle to truly develop most of the dwarves or even integrate them individually into the plot but the fantastic character and costume design go a very long way to make them all distinctive. Each actor gets into their roles very well with Richard Armitage shouldering the responsibility of head dwarf with particular aplomb. Ian McKellan is again a triumph as Gandalf the Grey, and enjoys a script that allows the lighter side of his character to spend more time at the fore. The standout of course is Martin Freeman who is the best Bilbo imaginable, perfectly encapsulating the character’s fusty reluctance and underlying heroic streak with surprising layers.
The character’s journey and Freeman’s performance reaches a critical point in the famous scene between the hobbit and Gollum which plays out as a brilliantly extended mix of comedy and tension. Andy Serkis slides back into the role that made him a household name with consummate accuracy hitting all of the key points that make the character so compelling, the slinkiness the twisted lovability, the schizophrenia and his single scene is one of the best in the film. But Freeman shines just as bright, perfectly balancing Bilbo’s discomfort with a burgeoning resourcefulness. The critical moment on which The Lord of the Rings hangs when he considers killing Gollum whilst invisible is a beautifully executed masterclass in nuanced facial acting. Not a word is said but you know every thought that passes through Bilbo’s head.
For some the chief draw of The Hobbit will be the action and Jackson doesn’t skimp in this department either and brings the excitement thick and fast missing no opportunity for a good scrap or chase. This means the fifteen journeying heroes getting into scrapes with orcs, goblins and wargs but there is also room for the catalyst for the whole plot, Erebor’s spectacular downfall in which the dragon is teasingly just glimpsed, not to mention a flashback of Thorin’s encounter with Azog, an albino orc whose role in the film is much more significant than the book. Then there’s the stirring clash between the stone giants of the Misty Mountains, seen in the distance in the book but forming the centre of one of the most memorable action beats in the film. Needless to say it all romps along brilliantly with enough scope for slapstick, peril and tension to occupy much of the same space.
For me everything about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey worked beautifully but not everyone will feel this way. It is very long and the pace can be at times languid, both things I would consider plus points for this type of film. While much of the action and adventure will feel familiar in tone to fans of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy some of the more childish elements may disappoint but it’s a film based on a book for children so a more whimsical tone ought to be expected. Regardless of any perceived flaws the strengths are plain for all to see in the polished delivery of the story, fantastically detailed production design and the powerful sense of immersion. Parts two and three can’t come soon enough.
Although some of the creative decisions behind it are arguably flawed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is still a majestically presented film with high spirits and wonderful characterisation.