Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

No masterpiece, but there is much to enjoy in this return to Middle Earth

It is the case that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is to my generation what the original Star Wars trilogy was to the children of the 70s and 80s. Every Christmas for three years, those films were amazing and formative experiences, showing our young eyes what cinema was capable of. They have swiftly become almost untouchable. I have never fully trusted anyone who has said that they don’t really get The Lord of the Rings. They seem like tricksy Hobbitses.

The LOTR/Star Wars analogy is most apt, because both generations craved more and both generations have had their moment of truth. With the Star Wars generation, it was a case of be careful what you wish for, and the fear amongst Tolkien fans, who learnt from this travesty, is palpable. After all, a slim volume has been transformed into not one, not two, but three films, and we are terrified that we are not about to be transported back to Middle Earth but rather to an accountant’s spreadsheet.

Of course, in such situations, the fanboy is his own worst enemy. He lets his expectations rocket high into the stratosphere, preventing himself from having the relaxed open-mind which let him fall in love with the material in the first place. Given that, the usual reaction to such big releases is torn between cries of “It’s a masterpiece!” and “It’s an abomination!”

In the case of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it is neither of the two. It is a fine addition to the cinematic Tolkien saga, but it has its problems. These problems are not insuperable, and when the initial furore has died down, it will be evident that Jackson should have our faith that he can really hit top gear with instalments two and three.

Let us start with the good points. We are back in Middle Earth: beautiful, bountiful, breathtaking Middle Earth. The wonder of this world and the brilliance of its realisation remain as spectacular as they were eleven years ago. The level of care taken in this should be enough to ward off anyone who accuses Jackson of cashing in. This man cares deeply about this world and these stories.

We find ourselves back in the Shire where a young Bilbo is assailed in Bag End by an unexpected party of Dwarves, led there by Gandalf the Grey. Their quest is to reclaim the Dwarvish kingdom of Erebor, which has long since been seized by the fearsome dragon Smaug. The shy and retiring Bilbo is asked to come on the quest and, after initial reluctance, he decides to go, but is almost instantly a total misfit in the party.

Though Bilbo is the eponymous Hobbit, he is not necessarily the lead in this film. Certainly he is the lead of this trilogy, but here he is finding his feet, and his story shares a lot of time with the nascent plotline that Gandalf will go on to follow. Nevertheless, the lost Hobbit, torn between trying to prove his worth and running back home is the heart of this episode, but there is an awful lot of other stuff involved here.

Indeed, this film does suffer from an almost unhealthy amount of exposition. One has no doubt that this is all necessary. In fact, one wonders, when it comes to the fledgling plotline of the Necromancer, if what is put in here will be sufficient for the uninitiated. Nevertheless, there is a lot of talking about things which have been and things which might come to be, and it all serves to slow the pace of the film down somewhat, and that is Unexpected Journey’s central problem. The pacing is a little off, and not just with the exposition. We spend a little bit too much time in Bag End waiting for things to get going.

However, when Jackson is freed from the shackles of laying foundations, he is able to wow us as only he can. There are a number of brilliant moments in this film. A sequence where mountains fight each other is awesome. A moment of communal dwarf singing is spine-tingling. The appearance of Gollum is utterly terrific. Let no one persuade you this film is a disaster. There is ample proof that it isn’t.

Not least amongst the good things here is the exemplary acting. Ian McKellen is back on fine form as Gandalf the Grey, and Andy Serkis deserves yet more recognition for his work as Gollum, but it is the newcomers who truly shine. Martin Freeman is a fine Bilbo, and there is brilliant ensemble work from James Nesbitt (Bofur) and Ken Stott (Balin), but Richard Armitage is the stand out as the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield.

We can live safe in the knowledge then that this is not a Phantom Menace moment, but nor is it a Fellowship of the Ring moment either, the film being too hampered by its slow pace. One senses that Jackson has much more to give and that this film has given him the groundwork to do that in subsequent episodes.

The weight of expectation that has been placed on this film will lead some to abject disappointment, but look closely and Unexpected Journey is a solid enough story with much to recommend it, and it promises us that a very complete cinematic incarnation of the Tolkien universe is being crafted by Jackson and Co. Roll on part two.

Rating: B

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