The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - movie reviewIt’s unspeakably wonderful to see The Shire safely back in Peter Jackson’s hands. The knighted director ventures back to Middle Earth, 60 years prior to The Lord of the Rings, to bring us J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved tale of dwarf-sized derring-do.
The story, is surely familiar by way of cultural osmosis and/or school-time reading requirements. Our titular hero Bilbo Baggins finds himself in a company of 13 exiled dwarves, all of whom are determined to conquer Smaug, the gold-snavelling dragon who has driven them from their Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Yes, dragon wrath notwithstanding, it’s a far more modest story than the end of the world antics of The Lord of the Rings. But that hasn’t stopped Jackson and his team from adapting Tolkien’s trim, 300-page novel into a blockbuster trilogy. But check your incredulity at the door, for if this first installment is anything to go by: then by Zeus we’re in for a good time!
That is, you’ll have good time if you can handle the newfangled 48 frames-per-second (48 fps). Jackson is taking a gamble on launching this new technology on such an epic stage. The disarmingly clear, hyper-real quality of the 48fps requires an almost bodily adjustment. The characters are so precisely defined from their backgrounds that they look stuck on; aliens in their surroundings. Their movement often feels akin to a video game, which can threaten to jolt you out of the cinema experience, particularly in the daytime scenes. With 1000 of the 25,000 worldwide screens projecting the movie at 48fps, debate will no doubt ensue over the technology's successes and shortcomings. For this cinema-goer, the jury is still out.
Setting aside technological considerations, The Hobbit is nothing short of a joyous homecoming. Jackson and his screenwriting team—Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro—cleverly serve up the familiar faces of Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) in a prologue that neatly interlaces with the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. We are then whisked back 60 years to meet young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who is singled out by Gandalf (the onscreen treasure that is Sir Ian McKellen) to assist the dwarves in their quest to reclaim their homeland.
Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo: the big-hearted homebody, who fusses over his plates and his pantry as the dwarves descend upon Bag End; later, the extremely averse adventurer who asks the company to turn back because he forgot his handkerchief! Freeman’s familiar traits as the stoic Dr. Watson in Sherlock, longsuffering Tim in The Office, or even the endearing amateur porn stand-in from Love Actually all find their natural home in a pair of hairy hobbit feet. And considering the film’s comparatively lighter, more comedic tone than it’s Lord of the Rings sibling, Freeman’s understated blend of heart and humour proves a galvanizing force throughout the film.
Indeed, while Jackson clearly relishes the dark and dangerous forces at work against his pint-sized company, he is also keen to share some laughs. Moreover, burdened with the task of sharing screen time with thirteen hirsute dwarves, Jackson often uses humour as a means to individuate. James Nesbitt’s larikin Bofur leads the way, mostly at portly Bombur’s (Stephen Hunter) expense. This distinguishes them from the so-called ‘hot dwarves’ Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner) and of course the company’s illustrious leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).
This reviewer’s heart will forever belong to Aragorn, but Armitage has got some game. He and Freeman admirably lock horns over Bilbo’s inclusion in the company, but Armitage really comes into his own in the ‘hero shot’ stakes: with flowing locks and a steely gaze, he gives us Braveheart by way of 300 – epically cool.
Another cracking turn comes from Barry Humphries. Unrecognisable, yet quintessentially ‘Barry,’ he voices the Great Goblin: a hulking, grimy, goiter-jiggling feat of fantastical CGI from that impossibly talented bunch at Weta Digital (though Guillermo Del Toro’s style seems evident here too). Cate Blanchett may make a rousing, unearthly return as Galadriel, but it’s the goblin underworld that steals the show.
This couldn’t be truer in the case of Gollum. Gliding straight over any “uncanny valleys”, Andy Serkis makes a triumphant return as our precious antihero. Serkis not only reassumes his groundbreaking performance-capture creature in effortless fashion, but proceeds to outdo himself in a jaw-dropping showdown with Bilbo.
Rehearsed as a theatrical chamber piece, the famous ‘Riddle Game’ gives goosebumps; Serkis and Freeman are superlative together in this battle of wits, where the laughs stemming from Gollum’s frayed psyche somehow manage to both relieve and amplify the tension. Jackson matches these stellar performances with superb editing, cinematography and that impossibly impressive CGI, in what will surely become a classic scene in cinema.
With so much action and so many moving characters/pixels, the simplicity of this two-hander comes like a breath of fresh air. Which is not to say the adventure elements are found wanting. On the contrary, the stone-soldiers battle and the goblin shantytown are just two standout sequences that use 3D to beautiful and hair-raising effect. However, the tale’s gormless trolls—Bert, Tom, and Bill—probably galumph around too long, stretching the laughs a bit too far. Then again, that scene should play very well with kids.
For ultimately The Hobbit is a children’s story. And Jackson et al have done a masterful job of bringing life, depth and impossibly intricate detail to Tolkien’s fantasy world.