Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Fans of sweeping aerial shots of little CGI people running around New Zealand, rejoice! Peter Jackson brings us back to Middle-earth, nine years after the release of The Return of the King.

This review is of the 24 frames per second 3D version, screened at IMAX. The 3D was so negligible it won’t be covered in the review. I’ve yet to see the infamous 48FPS version, but if you’ve seen it please leave comments below about what you thought.

The Hobbit has been a long and fraught journey, not just for Bilbo Baggins, but for the filmmakers as they’ve battled legal disputes, MGM going bankrupt, and the departing of director Guillermo del Toro. Jackson (let’s call him PJ, he’s an old friend now) has inevitably returned to the director’s chair and the benefit has been retaining a feeling of consistency across the series of films in terms of style, tone and production.

New Zealand looks otherworldly again, its stunning vistas (no doubt garnished by the wizards at Weta) are truly remarkable and it’s ultimately a classic example of the idea that landscapes can be characters in their own right. New Zealand is Middle-earth, and this time round we get to see more of the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor.

The Hobbit is a small scale affair compared to the world-changing exploits of The Lord of the Rings. This is set sixty years previous, the world is not at war yet, however darkness is creeping around the edges, so expect lots of foreshadowing which is obligatory in a prequel. However small the scale, the story is no less compelling, as it concerns a group of nomadic dwarves fighting to reclaim their homeland, led by the previous dwarf king’s son Thorin (played by Richard Armitage).

In some ways this premise is more compelling then a world at war scenario of LotR; somehow more relatable, to seek a place you can call home. It’s bolstered by the fact that a gold-loving dragon called Smaug is responsible for the kingdom being in ashes, and there’s nothing quite as potent as a revenge mission to take out a dragon. Of course we barely get a good look at the beast in this first entry of the trilogy, bringing to mind the way we only saw brief glimpses of Gollum in The Fellowship of the Ring.

In fact, The Hobbit seems to fall prey to the George Lucas ‘mirroring’ flaw, in that the first film of the prequel trilogy is attempting to replicate the magic of the original. In this case we watch a hobbit leave the Shire, have a pit-stop in Rivendell, have an adventure underground and then witness a brutal fight with a nasty orc in a forest. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, there is still a current of feeling in PJ’s story, and the beauty of New Zealand rather than the cold and clinical green screens of ILM. Still, there are no moments in The Hobbit that rival Fellowship’s assault on the emotions, there’s nothing as powerful as Sean Bean versus arrows. (or in fact any scene featuring Bean!)

As much as The Hobbit gets right, it also fails on a few points. For one thing, it’s hard to understand why Gandalf would force such a dangerous mission on an innocent and peace-loving Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman). There is an explanation offered in that the dwarves need the best burglar in Middle-earth which apparently Bilbo is, but Gandalf’s motivation of haranguing Bilbo is still a mystery, no matter how hard PJ makes it look like some kind of character-building exercise from the mind of a wise old teacher.

The Hobbit is almost three hours long and from the mid-way point you might begin to feel it’s doing the same thing over and over: putting the ragtag group of adventurers into harms way, then having them run away from it, sometimes with a Gandalf-shaped deus ex machina. This brings up a crucial point, for if you love Middle-earth, you will feel at home and more forgiving of the bloat PJ has added to the story. For casual viewers it will no doubt be very taxing on their patience.

Martin Freeman also does not really have much to do other than look confused and stumble about the place, he is often pushed into the background while the dwarves and Gandalf take prominence in the tale. There are brief moments where his character gets to shine, and so does Freeman, so here’s hoping he’s pushed more in the following films.

The film also continues the worrying Hollywood trend of non-endings. Everything is left unfinished. Yes, it’s the first of a trilogy, but even Fellowship felt like it had a decent resolution, the close of a first chapter. However The Hobbit is a relatively short book and has been stretched to three films with the help of supplemental material from Tolkien, and as the credits begin to roll you may wonder just how much was actually accomplished, both by the characters and PJ himself.

PJ (and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) have had mixed fortunes since The Return of the King. King Kong and The Lovely Bones were both received with mixed results, and The Hobbit also maintains his habit of trying to cram as much as he can into the running time. The Hobbit almost feels like an extended edition with its lengthy scenes of characters giving soliloquies, and side-characters who seem to have no relevance to the main plot (such as the odd wizard Radagast and his laughable mode of transport)

Regardless of any misgivings I have about the film, the rush of nostalgia I felt upon seeing an eerily immortal-looking Elijah Wood reprising his role as Frodo was incredible. PJ has roped in a few more returning actors, who all look like they haven’t aged a day since 2001. Even more interestingly, The Hobbit features no ‘human’ characters at all, populated as it is with dwarfs, elves, trolls, goblins and orcs. So if you’re into crazy looking creatures you’re going to have a great time. The main bad orc is a great creation, as is the goblin king and also: eagles. Yes, those plot-destroying eagles return.

PJ has invited us to an unexpected journey, and many will embark on it, because Middle-earth is cinema magic. An intricately designed world offering an escape from reality, where qualities such as courage and heroism are celebrated and darkness is beaten back to the edges. And those eagles really are awesome.

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