Friday, 28 December 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I LOVED The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I've seen it twice already, and am verging on a third. While my review may turn into a staunch defence of the tiresome criticisms levelled at the film (it’s too long, 48 FPS makes it look like television, why are they making a tiny book into 3 films again?) and I am a self confessed softie for anything Tolkien, here is my main plea for watching this film: ENJOY IT. As with any film that’s been pickled in its own hype for nearly two years it’s going to be pulled apart by fans and non fans alike, and that’s where the problem lies. Just go in and take it for what it is, is my advice: while it may be long, Peter Jackson’s first instalment is far from boring.

We start, as all reviews, with a hobbit hole. An Unexpected Journey not only introduces us to the new characters in Tolkein’s adventurous romp - baby brother to the more epically serious Lord of the Rings - and the first six chapters of the book, but Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and at one time and still credited Guillermo del Toro, have taken great care to pay heed to that great trilogy of films. They remember that we are in Middle Earth, and there are events in The Hobbit – some brought to life by Tolkien, others hidden in subtext and footnotes – which will impact significantly on things that have not yet come to pass. As well as the key moment when Bilbo meets Gollum and finds the Ring for the first time, a Ring which will later be placed into the hands of his young nephew Frodo, there is also the Necromancer – a foreshadow of a re-emerging Sauron. Jackson and co are tasked not only with telling us a brand new story, but weaving that story into the bigger frame and the wider world and juggling the heavy and prophetic themes with lighter, fun moments with uncouth dwarves and culinary trolls. Pure lovers of The Hobbit are going to feel frustrated, for this has bigger ambitions than even Tolkien had at the time of writing the tale, which was just a bedtime story for his children.

Home loving, stuck in a comforting rut Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is plucked from his lull of second breakfasts and pipes by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who chooses him as the final member of a party of dwarves to join them on an adventure. The Dwarves, scattered for some 60 years after their home at Erebor, a mountainous city of gold, was devastated by Smaug the dragon have formed a group of 13 to reclaim what once was theirs. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), whose grandfather was king under the mountain at the time of Smaug’s attack, the dwarves are thirsty for revenge, but need the help of Gandalf’s wizardry and a ‘burglar’ – that is where Bilbo comes in – to be able to locate the secret entrance into the mountain unnoticed and then destroy the fire-breathing unwelcome guest. To those who say nothing happens in the first part of The Hobbit... well, they must have then completely failed to notice the pack of orcs hunting the group, the greedy trolls spitting them over a fire, the Necromancer’s power spreading through the lands around them, a massive fight between the stone giants, the entire goblin city and the slaying of the goblin king, Bilbo finding a magic and powerful Ring in the mountain caves, Thorin nearly being killed by his nemesis the Pale Orc, and the group being rescued from a burning, falling tree on the edge of a cliff by a herd of badass eagles.

From the moment the opening titles came up, I felt a strange combination of a surge of energy and a warm comforting glow engulf me. I knew I was in safe hands, but I was also beyond excited at what I was about to see. The way I see it, the people who have complained about the film being too long are impatient, and already annoyed at having to devote three whole hours to being in the cinema. If you’re a film lover you should be delighted by that prospect and it should only truly irritate if the film is completely insufferable (in which case, leave). An Unexpected Journey is at worst a little draggy in places, where Jackson’s love of a scene has won over his critical eye (lose the Frodo bits, where he confusingly looks 10 years older anyway and his conversation with older Bilbo (Ian Holm) reeks of a clumsy hindsight), but not once is it dull or meandering. We need time with these characters – there are 13 of them! - and Jackson clearly loves the underlying work and you have to enjoy it with him. Why go in being cynical? I would rather sit back, relax and allow myself to be immersed for three hours than for the filmmakers to feel rushed with their work. This film is all about living in that moment and soaking up every last pixel on the screen – if you’re not in it for the adventure then stay home and smoke your pipe.

I spent most of this film, like Jackson’s LOTR before it, my mouth open agog. Some of his creations are just astounding. Erebor for instance, in the beautiful prologue, is a cavern of decadence, hoards of treasure and jewels and ornate and magnificent halls under the mountain. Rivendell the audience is already au fait with, but its shimmering beauty is just heavenly. Even the foreboding promise of Dol Guldur, which we'll see more of in The Desolation of Smaug, made me giddy. But my favourite (and when my mouth nearly dropped open) is the Goblin City. The intricacy of the drawbridges, the passageways, the contraptions and machines, all in this huge open space - just astonishing vision. I wanted to pause the film, walk up to the screen and just spend an hour trying to drink it all in. I loved how the audience's wonder is also matched with Bilbo's, venturing for the first time outside of The Shire. There will be so much more to explore and enjoy on future viewings! And when the dwarves finally manage to turn on their enemy and drive them back whilst trying to escape this labyrinth of levels, it was like watching the finer workings inside a ball bearing clock : the ladders, the bridges, the boulder – everything just flowed with a hypnotic precision, and with such a deft touch as Jackson's it also oozed with humour and entertainment. It was amazing to behold. New Zealand ain't looking too shabby either, in the breathtaking exterior shots over the 'Misty Mountains'.

But this was just the pinnacle in a dazzling array of set pieces. The fat trolls arguing over herbs and spices provided a lighter moment to the spectacle and the stone giants thunder battle had all the markings of Del Toro. They only amount to the briefest of paragraphs in Tolkien's work, but here Jackson and co have managed to make them some of the most memorable scenes. The danger of the climax when the orcs finally catch up with our heroes, and Thorin having to take a stand before the eagles come to rescue made me cry with joy (I was a bit tipsy first time round; second time...well I just cry at everything). The emotional beats the film hits, absent from the book, are hugely effective. We need Thorin to trust and value Bilbo's presence by the end of the film, and we need Bilbo to be fully invested in the adventure too, no matter how much he dreams of home.

But the scene stealer here, no matter how much I loved the eagles, Goblin City with my favourite character the lil Goblin Scribe on his pulley, and eccentric Radagast and Sebastian the hedgehog, is by far Riddles in the Dark. The joy with Martin Freeman in this film is that you don't even need the time to appreciate the casting and believe he is Bilbo Baggins - it's just instantaneous. His fussiness, his warmth and his bravery all merge wonderfully to bring this character to life, and in this scene he excels, taking part in a game of wits with the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) - to think this was the very first scene they filmed is extraordinary, as we've already had a full two hours with him at this point. Serkis more than matches him here too: the advance in motion capture technology is stunning here, as Gollum's eyes and mouth twitch as he struggles to come up with the answers and is fighting with the surrendering Smeagol ("Shut up! I wasn't talking to you."). And it's here we see an important development with Bilbo: not just keeping the Ring, but his decision not to kill Golum once he has the chance. He remembers Gandalf's words to him in the beginning: "true courage is about not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one." Plus, any riddles game where an answer is "eggses" earns bonus points with me.

There is so much to giggle at in An Unexpected Journey though - the weightier moments do not overshadow the amount of times it tickles you, from the culture clashing of dwarves and elves ("have they got any chips?"), Bilbo's hot spell over his contract, Saruman's dismissal of Radagast ("it's his obsessive compulsion of mushrooms, they've addled his brain!") to Gandalf's surprisingly coy moment at the White Council with Galadriel - a favourite of mine. Jackson has also managed to keep the importance of songs from the book, so as much as "that's what Bilbo Baggins hates!" can make you laugh, the beautiful rendition of the Misty Mountains ballad can strike a note of real poignancy. I'm still singing it now, and have even been moved to buy the official soundtrack, bewitchingly composed by Howard Shore.

What An Unexpected Journey comes down to is a love of fantasy and adventure, and you're not - apart from the later events of Middle Earth - going to get much better than this. Once it hits its stride I didn't want it to end, I could have sat there for hours. And the tease with Smaug's eye opening in the final shot... get me on a train to December 2013. This will all make sense once we have had The Desolation of Smaug and been There and Back Again: trust me.


  1. Great review. You're wrong though, it's a dull film - right up to the point Gollum rocks up. Then it's Game On! Maybe me seeing it in 3D was the problem, because that added nothing. Will watch it again in 2D at some point, when I have a spare day