‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ Review

the hobbitSo, it might be ‘an unexpected journey’, but ‘The Hobbit’ making it to the big screen seemed like a sure thing ever since the first ‘Lord of the Rings’ film was so successful 11 years ago.

Of course it’s been a long time coming and a very turbulent journey to the screen, with countless delays and drawbacks along the way, though this did ultimately result in Peter Jackson changing his mind and deciding to direct the films after all. He also recently made the controversial decision to expand the adaptation into three films, rather than the originally planned two. And now part one is finally upon us.

There was always going to be an issue with adapting ‘The Hobbit’ after ‘Lord of the Rings’ though, stemming from the source material. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a huge fantasy epic on a giant scale, long considered unfilmable. Adapting it successfully for cinema was a monumental achievment of film making. Compared with it, ‘The Hobbit’ (originally published many years prior) is a considerably smaller deal. It’s essentially a children’s book, much lighter in tone, and lacking much of the depth, scale,  and expanse of it’s follow up.
One has to accept that, before viewing it, it’s not likely to be on the same level as ‘Lord of the Rings’.
‘Lord of the Rings’ feels like the definitive story of Middle-Earth, while ‘The Hobbit’ feels like just one of many other stories that could have happened prior, and its just chance really that results in Bilbo finding the one ring.

Peter Jackson doesn’t seemed fazed by such pessimism though, and opens with a stunning prologue in which the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm again) tells Frodo the story of how the dwaves lost their home by a dragon attack. Even though we only get teases of Smaug the dragon, it’s a tremendous sequence.

The rest of the film is a very loyal adaptation of the first half of the book. Jackson allows himself a very generous running time in which to introduce the amusing band of dwaves and their quest to reclaim their home, and their gold, accompanied by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and a the younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman).

Those who criticized the previous films for being too long will undoubtedly have similar issues here, likewise those who think they had too much walking, personally I didn’t. The pace of the film is not much of a problem, it’s never dull, but there are a number of sequences that could have probably been removed with little consequence, such as the three revolting trolls, and it does take a while for the central quest to begin. Thankfully these are mostly in the film’s earlier half, the latter one is definitely the more exciting one.

‘The Hobbit’ does have some other problems, however, they tend to come from the source material. On their journey, the dwarves face numerous perils, such as the aforementioned trolls, an army of Goblins, and a pack of Orcs who are hunting them throughout. Nearly always these conflicts are ended by Gandalf using his undefined wizarding powers, which can feel like a bit of an easy way out.

These issues are minor ones though, overall, from the opening titles, when we see the familiar font and hear the familiar music, it feels great to be back in Middle-Earth.

Indeed the music itself is in fact a very important factor, Howard Shore’s epic score was a near constant presence in LotR and he does a similarly sterling job here, combining many themes and motifs from his earlier work with equally strong new ones. He is one of many collaborators returning from the earlier trilogy, offering outstanding work which seems less impressive now its familiar and expected, but should not be taken for granted. Other examples include the production design, costumes, digital, and practical effects.

One of Peter Jackson’s greatest strengths though, and one I feel doesn’t get mentioned enough, is his camerawork. ‘The Hobbit’ has many amazing moments in which the camera moves around mountains from a distance, swoops upward or falls downward in a cave, in seemingly continuous shots, often while many things are happening all over. Here, his work is particularly impressive in the Goblin cave and in crafting a distance montage, showing off the beautiful scenery for all it’s worth.

A film of the first half of ‘The Hobbit’ isn’t going to contain an action sequence anything like the battles in LotR, but it still gets in a few heart-pounding ones, especially the one involving ‘stone giants’.

Unlike LotR, ‘The Hobbit’ does have a clearly defined main character, on whose shoulders the narrative stands, and Martin Freeman, Peter Jackson’s only choice for the role,  proves himself to be more than up to the task. The other new cast members are all suitably memorable, and its good to see a few returning ones too, none of which feel forced in. Special mentions must of course go to Andy Serkis’s Gollum, and the riddle contest scene, probably the book’s most famous scene, is possibly the film’s best.

As long as they’re not expecting ‘Lord of the Rings part 4’, fans should be perfectly satisfied by this first installment of the new trilogy, and those who found LotR to be too much could be more enticed by the lighter tone and simpler narrative of ‘The Hobbit’. Any film self-consciously made to be the first part of one story is likely to end on a teasing note, but it certainly left me wanting to see the next part. It is worth noting that this film ends at around the book’s halfway point, meaning that the third film could mostly consist of material taken from appendices and such, or maybe even some newly written additions. I, for one, am eager to find out.

4/5

Note: Some reviews of ‘The Hobbit’ I’ve seen so far have talked quite a lot about the choice to film it in 48 frames per second, with varying opinions. Personally, I didn’t have the option to see it in this format, so saw it in the standard 2D 24 fps and can’t comment on the matter.

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