It’s been nine years since our last visit to Middle-earth, and yet it feels like we’ve hardly been away at all. Lord of the Rings was the cinematic event of the early Noughties, leaving an indelible mark on many a youngster and inner youngster. At the time, having just come off one of the riskiest and most gruelling shoots of his life, director Peter Jackson swore he’d never adapt The Hobbit, Tolkien’s original and much shorter, simpler foray into Middle-earth. Indeed, he only took the reins on this film after production delays led to Guillermo del Toro having to drop out. It seems fitting however, to have Jackson realise The Hobbit after his masterly work on LotR. His, after all, was the vision that brought Middle-earth to cinematic life. His home country provided breathtaking scenery and his artistic courage and fortitude and that of his team provided an intricate, impeccably detailed representation of the fantasy land and its peoples that many could only have dreamed of. In returning to direct The Hobbit, which has controversially been split into a trilogy, Jackson seems very much like he is returning to his spiritual home.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first in a three-film series that aims to adapt the well-known children’s book into a wider exploration of Middle-earth. The next two parts, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again are due to come our way in December 2013 and July 2014, respectively. It charts the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), uncle of LotR protagonist Frodo, and his joining on an adventure at Gandalf’s (a returning Ian McKellen) behest. A company of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are embarking on a quest to reclaim Erebor. This is their ancestral kingdom, buried within the Lonely Mountain, which was stolen from them by the dragon Smaug (fleetingly glimpsed here, but who will be played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the next two films). Along the way, he has a brief encounter with the wretched Gollum (Andy Serkis) and discovers the One Ring that will put the later events of LotR into motion.
There are a couple of things worth noting before I analyse this film proper. Firstly, and it’s probably an odd thing to say, but don’t expect an adaptation of The Hobbit proper. The basic narrative comes from the book, but events have been rearranged and embellished where necessary to suit the overall story. Jackson isn’t necessarily linking this film directly with his original trilogy, though the prologue does act as a framing device. What he and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have done is to work in some of the wider tales and events of Middle-earth’s people, politics and history in order to give audiences a fuller depiction of Tolkien’s fictional world.
In this sense, the film may ultimately prove inaccessible for many non-Tolkien aficionados. When you’re deeply invested in Middle-earth (as I am) and you realise the importance of these films – in that they might be our last cinematic trip to Tolkien’s land – then you’ll likely appreciate the fact that this was made a trilogy and thereby significantly altered so as to crank up the detail. If none of that interests you, you might find yourself resenting the stretching of the fabric. But leaving aside these various machinations and emotions, is the film actually any good?
Well, the short answer is yes. It’s excellent. As a Tolkien fan, it’s everything I dreamed it would be. From a critic’s perspective, it is a stirring work of art with some minor flaws. I found it to be a beautiful and powerful and brilliantly made piece of filmmaking. I’ll express a controversial opinion in that the 48fps, super-sharp images used looked terrific to me – unnerving yes, and difficult to get used to but after one of two scenes of suspected motion sickness, I did settle and I really warmed to it. It would be a shame if dislike of this particular format undid people’s opinions of the film, for, as an entity in its own right, An Unexpected Journey is a magnificent piece of work. Much like Fellowship, the opening is a slow burn and the prologue stretches that even further. However, this seems like a necessary sacrifice as the latter’s depiction of Erebor is absolutely stunning and the fleeting glimpses of Smaug do much to underline the malice and horror he represents. It’s peculiar to read that this film has a 6+ rating, as many of the dragon’s scenes are laced with a grim and frightening sense of foreboding. That he remains largely unseen contributes to this, as we are left to imagine what horrors lie beyond the rocks when the dwarves flee their kingdom. The same goes for some of the more hardened battle scenes, which bring a more insidious – if not quite as dark – streak of grit and brutality.
Tonally, this is much lighter than LotR. The landscapes are the same, photographed in rich colour for a more awe-inspiring trek through Middle-earth than ever (and a few of these sequences were definitely green-lit by the New Zealand tourism board). Yet, the pervasive sense of doom and peril that underlines much of the original trilogy is noticeably absent here, given its being set 60 years beforehand. This gives the film a much lighter, fresher, ambling pace so that when the difficult task of introducing the dwarves and kicking Bilbo out his door is done, it soars. The dwarves themselves are at once the film’s strength and its burden. It’s all but impossible to adequately chart personalities and narrative arcs for thirteen characters, so that – much like in the book – only a few are given any real time. Richard Armitage makes for a gruffly charismatic Thorin and renders his character perfectly. The dwarf would-be king is not a particularly likeable presence and spends much of his time either arguing or brooding. Armitage plays him with a firm, restrained strength that reflects the dwarf’s consumed obsession with reclaiming his kingdom, while ensuring us brief glimpses of the hero he will become. Alongside him, Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman are lively figures as Fili and Kili, while Ken Stott and Graham McTavish provide wisdom and brawn as Balin and Dwalin respectively. The returning players melt back into their roles with ease, but the film really belongs to Martin Freeman. His interpretation of Bilbo is perfect, seamlessly juggling the character’s tetchiness, wiles, and resourcefulness as well as his perplexed surprise at being the unlikely hero.
The battle sequences are outstanding, though the running time does mean the final two feel a little rushed. It is tempting to suggest that Jackson should have cut down his first hour to devote more time to the dwarves’ travails in the Goblin caves and with the Orc/Warg horde. The most important scene in the film however is Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, an entertaining and suspenseful chapter that captures all the atmosphere and tension of the book. The tone of the piece may be a bit too light-hearted and comedic at times but this is in keeping with Jackson’s style and his leavened take on Tolkien’s world.
An Unexpected Journey is definitely more of a film for the hardcore fan than the casual viewer, but it has numerous strengths and a great deal of heart. It’s bound by the deep love and affection of the filmmakers for the source material and it shows in the film’s heightened, vivid reality. Visually, it’s exquisitely shot and the 3D is very impressive (something I never thought I’d hear myself say). Keep an open mind and you’re sure to find this sumptuous, exhilarating, and rewarding – and bear in mind, the 48fps format is only playing at about 1,000 theatres, so just go to the 24fps version if it’s likely to bother you.
Review written by: Grace Duffy