Director Peter Jackson returns to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and first of three (possibly four) more movies. The result is very much like the previous films, which, depending on your level of involvement with the source material, is either a good or a bad thing.
Here we have the tale of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), seen previously as an old man (Ian Holm), but now younger and less adventurous. He’s recruited by kindly wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join a company of thirteen dwarves, out to reclaim their home city of Erebor from occupation by the terrible dragon Smaug. The dwarf leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), doesn’t see the need for a hobbit to burden their travels, but Gandalf sees many advantages to Bilbo’s presence, even if the others (including Bilbo himself) can’t. Of course, there are exciting exploits ahead, including a side trip to a dank cavern where Bilbo finds a certain magic ring, guarded by the murderous Gollum (Andy Serkis).
Of all of JRR Tolkien’s fantasy works, The Hobbit is considered the most accessible. A short, brisk adventure tale, it’s the one most people read and enjoy before giving up early into the less penetrable Lord of the Rings. This puts an added level of pressure on Jackson to provide a faithful rendition of the story.
He does this, but the decision to spread the novel out into multiple films seems strange, given that each much-larger LOTR novel was condensed into one film each. Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro have ample time to give to each of The Hobbit‘s escapades, but they also round out the story with numerous subplots derived from Tolkien lore, including a vile one-armed Orc leader hot on the dwarves’ trail, and the discovery of a mysterious Necromancer who conjures the dead.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Though they’re not given much importance in the novel, events in The Hobbit have a great impact on the later events we’ve already seen. In presenting it as a prequel, Jackson has the opportunity to tie The Hobbit into the larger Middle-Earth mythos. Thus the expanded story and brief cameos from returning characters Frodo (Elijah Wood), elf-leaders Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and shifty wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).
But bigger is not necessarily better. As the first of the new films, An Unexpected Journey gets some leeway for exposition and setup, but there certainly is a lot of it, and it occasionally brings the story to a halt. LOTR fans may not mind so much, but more casual viewers may find themselves checking their watches. At nearly three hours long, there needs to be a lot going on to hold attention, and frequently there isn’t.
When the action does come, though, it’s spectacular. The Hobbit isn’t about huge armies engaged in all-out war, but Journey still delivers a grand sense of scope and danger. There’s also more humour here as well – the situation is less dire than in LOTR, allowing for a little more whimsy.
The cast is excellent. Freeman has the perfect combination of reticence and courage to anchor the film as Bilbo, and McKellen’s Gandalf is like welcoming back an old friend. Armitage is stern and determined as Thorin, but manages to balance it with a rash streak and recognition of his faults. The numerous other dwarves are difficult to separate, but James Nesbitt as Bofur is a standout.
It’s also as high-quality a production as the previous films, with visual effects, costumes, sets, and music filling in the picture. No stranger to ambition, Jackson is also experimenting with 3D and a special “high frame rate” version running at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24, which purports to increase the detail of the picture. I viewed the humble 2D version, but can assure you it’s no less captivating (and probably less distracting).
And so, another quest begins. It’s not a completely smooth first step, but it’s a great start to the journey. Bring on the next one!
Tags: movie review