Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The burgeoning expectations (among critics and punters alike) regarding The Hobbit’s imminent release largely fell into two camps of thought.  The first was that this would be an incredibly rich tale, and a triumphant return to a much-loved world.  The second was more pessimistic: was Peter Jackson’s team pushing its luck by attempting to re-bottle lightning?  And how could they possibly stretch a relatively short novel into a whole new trilogy of films?

For some reason, though, for most of 2012, I was kind of ambivalent about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  I’m not a massive fan in the way that plenty of others are, but I do love the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.  When it came to the adaptation of its precursor, though, for some reason I couldn’t get too worked up about it.  All my cinema-related excitement was probably being directed towards The Dark Knight Rises and Looper instead, and while I embraced the notion of another big-screen fantasy epic, my expectations never really surpassed middling.

But after catching An Unexpected Journey a few days ago, I was pleasantly surprised by how good it’s turned out to be.  I still wish I’d gotten around to reading the book beforehand, but it struck the right chords for me in terms of entertainment value, emotional potency, and technical craft.  Jackson’s team have done very well indeed, treating Bilbo’s journey with just the right amount of levity and gravitas, and it serves as a solid (sort-of-)prequel to the mighty Rings trilogy.

Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo, silencing all doubters with a performance brimming with everyman charm, understated comic timing, and layers of nuance hitherto only hinted at in his other projects.  Even among a busy cast, Freeman remains at the core of the story, with his journey handled generously by Jackson’s team.  I’d even argue that Freeman’s take on Bilbo produces a much more authentic – and perhaps likable – protagonist than Elijah Wood’s Frodo.  Ian McKellen slips back into Gandalf’s cloak with grace, still full of spark and warmth.  Although there’s no Balrog-baiting on display here, when the wizard does get his hands dirty, it’s thrilling stuff.  The third key player is Richard Armitage, who fills chief dwarf Thorin Oakenshield’s moody boots with depth behind that gravelly veneer.

And of course, there’s the small matter of Gollum’s return.  (Or should that be introduction?  Damn confusing film-makerses.)  As obvious and inevitable as it may sound, the sequence starring Andy Serkis’ schizophrenic gnome is the undisputed highlight of the film.  As beautifully mo-captured as ever, Serkis oozes menace, charisma, and a heart-wrenching poignancy as the deformed creature, ratcheting up the tension in a duel of riddles with our Hobbit hero.  It only gets better in his final moments onscreen, wherein a crucial choice of character is examined, and it’s a moment which hits the emotional buttons surprisingly hard.

However, for all its moments of transcendence, it’s not quite as perfectly formed as the other entries in the Rings canon.  As mentioned, it’s my own fault for not having read the novel first, but there is such heavy, relentless exposition during some of the talkier scenes that it’s hard work to keep track of every single element.  I’m sure the many fans will find plenty to glean from, but newcomers may be lost in the flood of name-dropping and breadcrumbs.  The first act is also slightly marred by a somewhat lethargic pace.  Of course, it’s a relief that Jackson manages to establish a world so effectively, and the scenes in the Shire are all good and fun, but the film only begins to work its magic to the full upon the arrival of a cracking troll confrontation and an Orc encounter across New Zealand’s stunning plains.  Even in the latter, though, the impact is slightly tarnished by some shaky CGI in a slightly too-frenetic chase sequence.

Happily, though, as soon as the action moves on from – the gorgeously realised – Rivendell, the film steps up a gear and really finds its oversized, hairy feet.  From the second the band of dwarves are waylaid by a – literal – mountain battle, the film hits its stride, setting in motion a chain of events and set-pieces which keep the pacing and excitement riding high for the remainder of the runtime.  The final hour or so of the film is pretty magnificent: from the breath-taking scale of the goblin caverns to the fiery, menacing climax, it’s completely absorbing (and the faces behind HISHE will lap up what transpires at the very end).  You’ll leave the cinema buzzing, and excited for the next instalments to come.

Before signing off, though, it’s probably worth addressing the pair of elephants in the room.  The first being the concerns that a three-hundred-page can’t competently be stretched to a trilogy of epics.  But thankfully, with the exception of a few scenes here and there, An Unexpected Journey never feels as if it’s drawing itself out.  On the contrary: it manages a fine balance, nicely and respectfully re-establishing a universe, while keeping intrigue and action as high priorities.

As for the second issue, that of the frame-rate, I know it’s been a bone of contention for some, but personally, I barely noticed the difference.  It’s possible that it’s more perceptible in a 3D context, but for me, it was easy to settle into the world comfortably and obliviously, and I was left free to enjoy a film which is a strong starter for the new trilogy.  It may be a little overwhelming at times in its levels of detail, but An Unexpected Journey is a true treat, and returning to Middle Earth once again is a pleasure.

Jackson and co. have pulled off a mean feat in creating a first chapter for the trilogy which feels breezy and unforced.  Freeman capably keeps Bilbo at the heart of the story, and with spectacle and exhilaration delivered in spades, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is pure escapism, and thoroughly enjoyable fare.

8/10

21/12/2012

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Posted on December 21, 2012, in The Film World. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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