The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Review * 16 December 2012

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"...My own adventure turned out to be quite different..."

-Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring

The above quotation from our first live action journey to Middle Earth, over ten years ago now, can be taken as a literal truth when viewing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. On one hand, there is the need of unavoidable comparison, but on the other trying to draw direct similarities to the earlier multi-award winning Lord of the Rings trilogy may be fool hardy. Both obviously occupy the same great fictional world devised by J.R.R. Tolkien, but The Hobbit, by its nature, is a lighter, simpler story - a great, vignette packed adventure that on the page lacks the world-at-stake weight of its sequel. As a film then, it needs to temper expectation while shifting its focus onto the motivations of the characters it portrays, and as a result the quest is more personal for all concerned.

Some initial heavy lifting is required to bring all the elements into play however. A slightly awkward multi-pronged prologue moves from the hours before Gandalf's arrival for Bilbo's long expected one hundred and eleventh birthday party to a spectacular depiction of Smaug's sacking and occupation of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, and then back again, before jumping back sixty years earlier to show us the start of Bilbo's adventure with the Dwarves. It's possibly more complex than it needed to be - while it is a pleasure to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprise their roles from The Lord of the Rings, it's very hard to shake the sense that they are actually surplus to requirements. Once the scene shifts back and we meet Martin Freeman in the role of Bilbo, the film comes to life without jumping into a higher gear, allowing the audience to slowly meet the Dwarves at perhaps an overly relaxed pace - much of the material here could have easily have been saved for the Extended Edition of the film that will debut on home video in the future. Regardless, once the action begins fully with Bilbo running from the front door of Bag End to join Thorin's company in an effort to recapture the unexpected spark of life he found the night before, we were beyond invested in the story being told.

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This slightly muddled opening perhaps shows adapting the book for the screen as problematic, not least through divergences in the source material that seemed to sit at odds with Peter Jackson's existing trilogy - particularly in the case of talking creatures such as Trolls, who notably lacked a voice in The Lord of the Rings and instead existed only as ferocious beasts. It's a pleasure then to see the screenplay embrace these quirks fully, which lends the three Stone Trolls, and other characters such as The Goblin King - broadly and disgustingly played by Barry Humphries with a pronounced and slightly distracting scrotum-like goiter - a full vocal and performance range. In turn it gives the film a different tone from The Lord of the Rings in that regard, these physically imposing creatures blessed with voices that make their appearances more akin to scenes from Jim Henson's fantasy films from the mid 1980s. But then on the flipside we see the screenwriting team of Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens delving into Tolkien's other writings, delivering critical additions such as the ominous white Orc Azog, whimsical wizard Radagast the Brown, and the mysterious Necromancer to the simple narrative, all of which heighten the drama and begin to darken the material, dovetailing it towards the larger world of the previous trilogy.

As with all prequels, there is a tricky balancing act to be achieved. Often, the ending is rendered moot, our existing knowledge of earlier - yet later - films making the drama ring hollow. True, we witness scenes mentioned in The Lord of the Rings trilogy to which we already know the resolution, and some of Howard Shore's thematic and motif scoring on the soundtrack signposts intended surprises too easily - particularly in revealing the true identity of The Necromancer to an astute audience while the characters remain clueless. Yet despite this there also seems to be the notion of the long-game at play, and that possibly takes the form of more than a simple connective build to the narrative of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Most obvious is the sense that the work here is designed to actually enhance the performances of some of the cast in The Lord of the Rings - take for example, the scene between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) in Rivendell. It ends up as a meeting that will likely increase the emotional impact of his fall in Moria - and Galadriel's reaction to the news - in The Fellowship of the Ring all the more, and it is easy to imagine that scene gaining tremendous power for future generations once they have spent over nine hours in the company of the Grey wizard.

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The returning Ian McKellen, taking top billing in the credits, is of course an absolute joy to watch again in the role of Gandalf the Grey. It's much like the return of a favourite grandparent thought lost, the devious sparkle of a genuine twinkle in his eye investing the film with true warmth. But without doubt Martin Freeman gives the film its heart, his incarnation of Bilbo having the required degree of selflessness and burgeoning courage that allows us to invest in him fully. Unlike Frodo, Bilbo has no real reason to go on this quest, and this is addressed directly in the narrative itself - while suffering self doubt in his abilities, Bilbo is the most human of Hobbits. Martin runs a broad range during the film, moving from initially prissy and comedic to tangible fear and a growing strength as he finds himself thrust into more dire circumstances, all the while retaining that famous edge of the everyman that he portrays so well. But his performance - and the film - crests a peak with the iconic game of Riddles in the Dark. Again, superbly, comically and tragically played by Andy Serkis, the return of Gollum in this most famous of fantasy literature scenes is the film's highlight, and features the strongest performances in the entire duration. Bilbo emerges a stronger character, and the quiet strength that Martin gives him when faced with the critical moment of absolute power over the fate of this pitiable creature carries genuine quiet gravity and weight. By the time of the final forest based set piece, when Bilbo heroically plunges into the fray - and finds his bravery far earlier than in the book - it's almost impossible not to feel the need to cheer him on, or even be moved by his actions.

The other cast are uniformly excellent. Made up of quality actors that are familiar to British and New Zealand television audiences, the company of Dwarves are completely different from the Fellowship of the Ring. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage; North and South, Spooks, Captain America), some of the company are slightly sidelined at the expense of others. Instead we focus mainly on Thorin, haunted and embittered by the loss of his home and kingdom to the dragon, as well as feature dwarves such as the formidable Dwalin (Graham McTavish; Casualty, Prison Break, 24), the impish yet handsome brothers Fili (Dean O'Gorman; The Almighty Johnsons) and Kili (Aidan Turner; Being Human), the clownish yet good hearted Bofur (James Nesbitt; Cold Feet, Steven Moffat's Jekyll), who is gifted a standout moment with Bilbo that is expertly played, and the anchoring Balin (Ken Stott; The Vice) - who we have technically met before as his tomb in Moria was smashed in by the Cave Troll in The Fellowship of the Ring. The others have little to do in this first instalment of the trilogy, but it's easy to imagine them all gaining more material in the future. Among the other new cast, Sylvester McCoy makes for a suitably eccentric and befuddled Radagast -though any attempts at comedy with the character fall slightly flat - and among the returning characters from the previous trilogy it is, as always, a true joy to see Christopher Lee taking huge relish in his performance as Saruman. Though he is named in the credits, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a minimal contribution in his dual roles as Smaug and The Necromancer, with the latter putting in a brief vocal and physical appearance that hint at a far larger role to come. Smaug is kept relatively hidden, confined to snatched glimpses at the opening and close, but both suggest at a creature of immense size, ferocity and physicality, and it is pleasing to see that the traditional striking colouration of the character has been retained as his great red tail disappears into the shattered gate of Erebor in the opening sequence.  

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Despite that opening, and a flashback to Thorin's battle with Azog on the eastern slopes of Moria where the broken Fellowship emerges years later, it isn't until the Indiana Jones-like escape from the Goblin City that any sequence really reaches the scale of The Lord of the Rings. Filled with truly outrageous action, it can verge on the absurd in the death-defying stakes, but again, everything here likely heightens the untouchability of the characters which will in turn make their fates more affecting. Gandalf's skills are far more prevalent in comparison to the previous films - he is, for the lack of any other suitable definition, completely badass, and rather than trying to outpace the action in The Lord of the Rings you can easily take it again as that long view of enhancing the emotional reaction in the previous trilogy. Peter Jackson's direction is never less than assured, the trademark swooping camera work moving from new heights to incredible depths, while the film once again acts as the best advertisement the New Zealand travel industry could ever hope for. Visually Middle Earth appears far more colourful and richer than in The Lord of the Rings - the world is yet to plunge towards the verge of darkness, and the previously autumnal tones of Rivendell for example are completely absent - and while the use of 3D is never intrusive, it instead follows the pattern of Avatar and Prometheus in heightening the immersion for an audience with a minimal amount of flash or showiness.  

The subject of years of production woe and studio politicking, it's a stunning thing to finally find oneself sat in a cinema watching The Hobbit. It never reaches the heights or the sprawling narrative urgency of any film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but instead we are given a small tale of quiet, developing heroism in its title character, so superbly brought to life by Martin Freeman. Indeed it seems revelatory to see him here on so large a canvas, transported from the familiar surrounds of a television screen or smaller budget film and placed in the single largest work of fantasy being produced today. It is extremely heartening with The Hobbit that he - and to a lesser extent Benedict Cumberbatch - are finally being introduced to the world on a scale that was unimaginable before. While Bilbo's heroic arc may have been done to death in the history of fiction, it is regardless told well here, and with the sight of an immense, golden reptile eye snapping open there is the unavoidable suggestion that the best of The Hobbit trilogy is yet to come.

Sherlockology viewed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the BFI IMAX in London from a 15/70 70mm IMAX film print at the regular 24fps. Opinions on the much vaunted 48fps HFR version of the film will hopefully be available in the future.

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