Saturday, 26 January 2013

Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Prejudices declared – as a young lad I loved The Hobbit; J.R.R. Tolkein's tale of a thirteen dwarves and a hobbit on a quest to purloin a dragon's treasure horde was probably the favourite book of my childhood. Growing older, my favourite book in my teens was probably Lord of the Rings and into young adulthood I absolutely loved Peter Jackson’s rings trilogy. That's my baggage. So in theory I should be on my knees and panting at the thought of a Jackson-directed Hobbit - but the generally lukewarm reception of the film, the decision to stretch it over three installments and the convoluted development history have all dampened my enthusiasm a little.

But y'know, I really enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. Any doubt you might’ve had about the Hobbit being an aesthetic continuation of Jackson’s earlier films is dispelled pretty much immediately, with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their Bilbo and Frodo from the Rings films at the get-go. Much of the behind-the-camera team remain also, as do the musical cues and the trademark attention to detail.

But let's deal with the big issues first. Now, I chose to see the film in 2D – because (a) I don’t like 3D, and (b) I already wear glasses, like, to see properly – so I can’t comment on the effectiveness of that particular gimmick; there were one or two moments early-doors that were clearly designed to be 3D, but I can’t imagine the 2D could be anything but better than the 3D. Similarly, I can’t discuss the much-debated 48-frames-per-second version, as apparently there are only about four cinemas in the UK that can actually show this. Again, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out.

All this techno-talk (along with the vexed issue of the tiny wee book being turned into an nine-hour trilogy) brings us to the issue of Peter Jackson’s motives. Has he sold out to the big studios, squeezing every last nickel and dime out of Middle Earth? Well, not quite. I still firmly believe that Jackson is on the side of the angels; I trust his instincts and while there were occasions of over-stretching certain sequences ("like butter, scraped over too much bread"...) I am willing to believe that he does indeed see the trilogisation of The Hobbit as a fundamentally artistic decision, albeit one which the dollar-eyed studio execs were more than happy to indulge.

So to more practical criticisms. Now, I have no problem at all with any monkeying around with the source material, as long as the monkeyers have a strong affinity with it, as Jackson, Boyens et. al. clearly do. However, I must admit to finding Bilbo’s somewhat abrupt transition from homebody to hero is a little forced, and less believable than in the book. Also, I can't deny that the film is a bit too long. I usually slate films for taking longer than 90 minutes; I was happy to stay with The Hobbit for longer than that (as I was with the Lord of the Rings films), but this could've been trimmed a bit - there is an extended prologue recalling the opening of Fellowship which could've been excised altogether, and a later sequence involving stone giants - not in the book - was perhaps something for the extended DVD edition rather than the theatrical cut.

A smaller grumble is the over reliance in the (generally fun) action scenes is an over-reliance on a sort of 'domino effect'; more than once are a horde of seething goblins end up tumbling arse-over-tit after a timely dwarvish trip or shove. The film is generally jollier and less portentous than the LOTR trilogy, but even so these peculiar dynamics undermined the realism (OK, I know) of the film.

Plus sides: the team do a great job of one of the most difficult questions posed by the book: too many characters for a film (the party of dwarves alone number thirteen). This is cleverly resolved, with each dwarf given character enough to be distinguishable without spending undue time away from the prime movers. The dwarves themselves are a lot of fun, though chief dwarf Thorin, Richard Armitage, is still developing his charisma here and is out-gravitased by Ian McKellan's essential Gandalf and few other of the LOTR alumni reprising their roles, most notably Andy Serkis mo-capping as Gollum for the crucial ring-finding moment.

Martin Freeman, on the other hand is fantastic and was undoubtedly born to play the role of Bilbo Baggins. He has a story problem in that, unlike the four rookies setting out alone in Fellowship, he is effectively a passenger amid a troupe of grizzled warriors - like dropping Jimmy Stewart into The Expendables - but his deadpan flatness and expressionistic physical acting, along with Jackson's sympathetic and thoughtful direction keep Bilbo at the film's heart; as in the book, his little-Englander confustication proves a fine window into the fascinating world of Middle Earth, an effect which would've been torpedoed by a less nuanced performance.

A few other personal highlights - I also absolutely loved the eco-wizard Radagast the Brown (played by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy), whose character has been fleshed out wonderfully and slots perfectly into the lighter tone of this film. McCoy's exchanges with McKellan are joys to behold, recalling their theatre work together as Fool and Lear respectively; also his bizarre and grotesque 'hedgehog revival' sequence deliciously recalls Jackson's early squishy horror work.

Also fun were the dwarvish songs (which I was actually dreading); Ken Stott as dwarf no. 2 Balin; the iconic encounter with a group of three dim-witted trolls; and Sir Les Patterson being called away from his cultural attaché work to perform as the king goblin, complete with a Salacious Crumb-esque cackling sidekick.

In all, a slightly flawed but nonetheless highly entertaining romp, and I can't wait for the next one.



  1. It's good to read that you liked The Hobbit as much as I did. The only thing I hated about the film was the amount of filler material added into such a flawless story. We didn't need two goblin kings, or Radagast the Brown... they were pretty cool but alas unnecessary.

    Great review! :)