FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit who finds himself swept into an adventure with thirteen dwarves and a wizard, all seeking the lost land of Erebor, taken from them by a fearsome dragon.



Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finds himself with a wizard (Sir Ian McKellen) and thirteen dwarves on his doorstep, led by the impressive Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Seeking to reclaim the lost land of Erebor in the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the dwarves enlist Bilbo as a burglar and embark on a quest across Middle Earth that takes in trolls, goblins, a visit to Rivendell and an encounter with Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) that hints that something evil may be rising in Middle Earth. Bilbo has his own personal encounters too, engaging in a riddle competition with Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finding a small gold ring that carries a mysterious power.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey appears nine years after we last saw Middle Earth on the big screen and has brought along its fair share of baggage. A film that very nearly didn't happen for various reasons, when Peter Jackson announced that The Hobbit was to be screened at 48 frames per second instead of industry standard 24 and then that it was to be three films as opposed to the afore-confirmed two, it's created quite the storm. I didn't see the film in 48fps, just in 3D, so I can't comment as to the effect that the increased frame rate has on the film. I will say though, that the 3D utilised here was the best I've seen, working to enhance the world of Middle Earth rather than detract from it. In fact, it almost made me think that 3D was a good idea. Almost. 

Then there's the issue of The Hobbit becoming a trilogy, despite being only one, quite small book. First of all, let's get the problems out of the way because unfortunately, there are a couple. Nothing major I grant you, but it was inevitable that with the extension into three films, there were going to be some pacing issues. The middle act slows down a little, keen to connect the current Middle Earth events to those of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The meeting of the White Council, in which Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond meet with Saruman to discuss a potential rising evil, works well to establish plots of the later trilogy but unfortunately slows its own film down to a snail's pace.

The addition of other material doesn't necessarily always have the same effect. I really enjoyed the inclusion of dwarven history as helped to build a more complete picture of the dwarves' quest, adding an extra dimension to what could just seem like a fun jaunt to Erebor. Then there's the effect it has on the characters in the film, increasing their roles beyond the very brief sketches we get in the novel. It also enhances the relationship between Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield, rather beautifully summed up in Bilbo's reasonings for remaining to help the dwarves on their quest. 

Now moving swiftly on to the positives, of which there are many. The Dol Guldur sequence with Radagast was a particular favourite of mine, packed full of visual and aural connections to the big brother trilogy and is a perfect example of one of the film's major highlights, the sound and Howard Shore's score. The new material is fantastic stuff, particularly the dwarves' theme which has been in my head ever since that first trailer was released last year and the choral fire-and-brimstone number during the goblin chase really aids the action. Then there's the nods to the LOTR soundtrack; the Shire theme gets a nice twist while the Dol Guldur sequence utilises memory to great effect to really up the chilling atmosphere. Some people may criticise the recycling of the music as unimaginative but it was one of my favourite aspects of The Hobbit and was probably the most effective method, for me, of linking the two trilogies completely.

An Unexpected Journey, despite its darker moments, operates a whole shade lighter than LOTR, embracing the comedic and the ridiculous moments in its source novel. The dwarves are a riot from the moment they appear, handling the comedy (and the inevitable singing) with aplomb though a couple of lines do grate a little. The thirteen actors have an easy chemistry though some do get more the spotlight than others. Gaining a nice Legolas-style transformation is Aidan Turner's Kili, given far more to do as one of the youngest and most adventurous dwarves, turning in a nice performance that balances both naivety and bravado. James Nesbitt's Bofur and Ken Stott's Balin both handle the kindly wise men roles well while Richard Armitage gives good Aragorn as the displaced leader of the troupe, destined to lead his people home.



Despite the strong support, there are still three performances in The Hobbit that stand out from the rest of the cast. Andy Serkis gets back in to the motion capture suit that made his name and brings back everyone's favourite jewellery-addict. It's a virtuoso performance that flits back between the two personalities of Smeagol and Gollum with ease, treading the fine line between the inherent tragedy and comedy of the character. Sir Ian McKellan's Gandalf is another highlight; a complete badass in the goblin scenes and the only one in Middle Earth who actually thinks something bad is about to go down. His flicker of recognition when Bilbo pockets the Ring is subtle, yet mightily effective.

Then there's Martin Freeman, the strong centre of the film who gives a career-best as Bilbo Baggins, presenting a multi-layered hobbit who has yet to achieve his true potential. Freeman naturally excels in the comedy scenes, even if he does play the first few scenes as a pointy-eared Arthur Dent (though the two characters have a fair amount in common) but it is in the later stages of the film, as Bilbo discovers his capacity for bravery and adventure that Freeman really excels. 

Whilst I still remain sceptical as to whether The Hobbit Trilogy will actually work as such, I was delighted by this first return to Middle Earth with its great sense of fun and some stunning set pieces. I'm already planning a return visit and may have to venture out to find a 48fps screening, just to see what all the fuss is about.

****

- Becky

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