Release Date: 13th December, 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Andy Serkis
There are arguably few films from the naughties which hold a greater cultural impact than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Often recognised as the Star Wars of the millennial generation, Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of Tolkien’s high fantasy work was generally lauded, culminating with the series’ threequel ‘The Return of The King’ snatching eleven Academy Awards in 2003. Nine years later, Jackson makes his inevitable and much-anticipated return to Middle-Earth through prequel treatment by adapting The Hobbit; a comparatively jaunty, light-hearted novel when sat next to Tolkien’s magnum opus. Controversially, Jackson has made the decision to release the films as yet another trilogy with three releases scheduled across the next 18 months despite the source material’s modest 330-page breadth, leaving enough of room for both anticipation and skepticism to thrive pre-release.
Opening with a Sir Ian Holm-led prologue intercut with sweeping Hobbiton vistas, you would be forgiven for thinking you had entered a cinema auditorium-shaped tardis and were watching Jackson’s first outing, The Fellowship of the Ring again. The sequences are chock-full of iconic production design, recognisable extras and familiar Howard Shore themes that work to simultaneously reintroduce and reminisce before flashing back 60 years, revealing a young yet immutable Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) — our bumbling hero who embarks on an adventure to the Lonely Mountain along with 13 dwarves and a wizard. It is a considerable amount of set up in service of very little narrative function other than to wallow in Middle-Earth a little longer, establishing up front that this is a story which is going to take its time to tell for better or worse, “All good stories,” Gandalf (McKellen) recites (and might as well have winked at the audence as he did so), “deserve embellishment.”
As a film based on the opening act of a single book, The Hobbit is reforged by no fewer than four accredited screenwriters to craft a solid three act structure and escalated sense of scale to the quest, whilst attempting to simultaneously pay due respect to the source material. Much of the added lore stems from Tolkien’s own pen; details such as the fate of Thorin’s father at the hands of Azog are bled from the appendices into the screenplay, granting some creative control to the filmmakers. For instance, Thorin’s often-unlikable, gratuitous greed that plagued the book is mostly traded in favour of nobility and severity, serving almost as a combined Aragorn/Boromir arbiter. You can’t help but feel that Jackson & co. are playing it safe, but in adapting the portrayal of him they are able to craft a decent arc and enjoyable payoff during the third act. As for the remainder of the dwarfish company, many of their roles can be boiled down to simple adjectives tacitly inferable through their costume design and limited dialogue alone, with very few outside Balin receiving a decent fleshing out. Still, they do sing, so there’s that.
The Hobbit finds itself tonally between two extremes: on the one hand there’s a stoicism and severity befitting a film based in the same world as Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, whilst on the other there’s the child-friendly humour that arguably distinguishes the tale from its older brother. The pendulum swings hard; for every moment Bilbo forgets his handkerchief or baffles trolls with his culinary knowledge-bombs, Thorin beheads and guts a sea of goblins in an attempt to exact revenge for his dead father and fallen homeland. For the most part, the shifts are handled tactfully enough that it is hardly an issue, however there are moments which stick out as problematic. Should you be worried that Radagast “Bird Shit on Face” the Brown has seen a necromancer wandering around the tomb of The Witch King? Probably. Should you also be laughing at the fact his mode of transportation there and back is a sled drawn by seemingly cocain-powered woodland creatures? Probably…?
Visually and audibly, the film is pretty stunning. Effects company Weta Digital (The Lord of the Rings, Avatar) excel in once again creating beautifully-rendered CGI models of the cast of creatures and critters that grace the screen, and Howard Shore’s “Misty Mountain” motif is reworked and re-engineered throughout to great effect, although his insistence on revisiting older themes (including a truly misguided use of the Nazgul motif in the third act) serves more to disconnect and baffle those familiar with his previous work. The 3D elements, while shot stereoscopically during production, fail to add anything of particular significance to the imagery and even showed signs of slight interlacing during the IMAX 3D (24fps) projection upon which this review is based.
Martin Freeman’s Bilbo serves as a likeable protagonist and also proves to be one of strongest performances, second only to mo-cap maestro Andy Serkis who reprises his role as Gollum. Through a combination of superb CGI, well-timed editing and committed performances, the scenes in which the two share the screen are some of the best The Hobbit has to offer. In fact, the majority of the highlights to be found tend to exist far away from extended fiction, intense counsels and the wealth of not-so-subtle Sauron foreshadowing, but instead when it embraces a lighter, adventurous side.
In a world where television audiences are becoming accustomed to season-long arcs fulfilling the narrative of a single book, the deliberate pace of The Hobbit is not inherently problematic in itself. What is problematic, however, is Jackson’s underdevelopment of core characters, unnecessary narrative complexity and seeming inability to distance himself in any way from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The LOTR scent is all over An Unexpected Journey; it’s in the music, the scale and the wide landscape shots of people walking long distances with gusto. It’s forgivable for the first film to play on this nostalgia to some degree, but a further two films could prove to be taxing. Perhaps hindsight will be An Unexpected Journey‘s greatest ally and everything will fall into place with a Machiavellian grace. In the meantime, fans will savour this return to Middle-Earth: a flawed, beautiful, and ultimately promising start to another Baggins adventure.