WARNER BROS. PICTURES (2012)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Graham McTavish, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Adam Brown, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis
“I’m going on an adventure!”
That pretty much sums up how the audience should feel as they return to Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The first of a new trilogy, the movie sets out to begin telling the story pulled from the novel…of 300 pages. Ah. Obviously, liberties would have to be taken with the story and unsurprisingly these amendments are hit and miss.
However, the trilogy opener is a solid, if not spectacular, starting point.
It’s nearly celebration time for Bilbo Baggins (Holm). He’s nearing his 111th birthday and he is to leave his life story to his nephew, Frodo (Wood). Thus begins the story as we go back 60 years and more…
50-year old Bilbo (Freeman) is unwinding in his Hobbit hole one evening when he receives an unexpected knock on his door – a warrior Dwarf, Dwalin (McTavish), stands before him, apparently believing he should be there at that moment. He is then followed by twelve other Dwarves, who aside from Thorin aren’t given any development. When Gandalf the Grey (McKellen) finally turns up, Bilbo clocks that something is definitely transpiring. It turns out the Dwarves are on a quest to reclaim their homeland (and treasures), the Lonely Mountain, and they require a ‘burglar’, someone capable of sneaking into the Mountain under the nose of the current wicked incumbent Smaug.
Initially refusing, Bilbo eventually signs up to the quest. The mission sees the group fighting trolls, visiting Rivendell to begin mending old wounds with the Elves, traversing the Misty Mountains and meeting old friends in the depths of Goblin Town. Not just that, we are introduced to Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a wizard in tune with nature who has an encounter with a familiar future foe in the gothic spread of Dol Goldur. The bad guys are war-torn Orcs who are hunting down the Dwarves in order to end the bloodline of Durin, which will end with Thorin, Fili and Kili. There’s an awful lot going on for a movie with such a small source with which to pull from.
We are shown how the mighty dragon Smaug drove the Dwarves from their mountain (and kingdom) under the Lonely Mountain, in lust of their home and gold. We see the young Dwarf Thorin (Armitage) witness the Elves turn a blind eye to their troubles. We witness the death of Thorin’s father, Thráin, at the hands of the evil Orc, Azog the Defiler. There’s a lot of exposition to get through, however the movie deals with it in a meddlingly competent way.
Basically, the new Fellowship needs to get from point A to point B to reclaim their home and fight off various threats along the way.
An Unexpected Journey’s opening 30-45 minutes can plainly be described as hard work. The introduction of the Dwarves is loaded with singing, flatulence and childlike humour. Generally, none of that is an issue, but with this movie it just seems too juvenile and becomes tedious, almost as if Jackson had to stretch the story out as much as possible. As the adventure begins properly, there are still moments that harken back to the intro (the trolls and those accents) however, things do improve.
The movie clings to the aesthetic that the Lord of the Rings trilogy created, which will never be a bad thing, though it ensures the spirit remains closer to the cinematic world than Tolkien’s written realm – something that is unavoidable as this trilogy needs to directly connect to the Rings movies. The key issue with visuals (other than the CGI bad guys…) is the 48fps framerate that the movie is shot in. At times it lends itself to a crisper image, generally during external scenes, however at other times it gives the movie an almost TV-like feel, especially during the aforementioned intro.
Martin Freeman grows into the role of Bilbo as the movie pans out, his trademark peculiarity marrying brilliantly with Bilbo’s mannerisms and his scene with Gollum (Serkis) is the movies stand-out moment. Armitage is solid as Thorin, however the rest of the Dwarves aren’t given much time to develop individually. The movies key amendments involve introducing Radagast the Brown (a wizard in tune with nature that unfortunately rides a sleigh pulled by rabbits…) and Azog as the main antagonist. Both are fleetingly mentioned in the books but receive greater time here. Azog is CGI…he doesn’t look great…
There’s a lot to like about this movie, it isn’t all negative. The ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Bilbo and Gollum is the standout, but the final fight scene is grand on a small scale and does help with some much-needed characterisations. The return to Rivendell provides some key moments and the return of beloved characters, and any visit to Dol Goldur looked ominous and creepy. The problem I found is that the movies highlights all directly relate to the Rings trilogy – be it through recurring characters or returning locations.
There’s no getting around the point that the movie is far too long. It clocks in at nearly three hours and at times it is clear where the story is being dragged out – the long non-introduction of the Dwarves, the long middle section in Goblin Town to name a few examples – and that spells bad news for the subsequent two movies. Six cinematic hours to come to cover 200 pages of a novel. It wasn’t an issue with the Rings trilogy as there was so much from the source material to include, but it’s a different story here. However, there is so much crammed into the movie it’s actually a hell of a feat that Jackson has managed to create a cohesive narrative, but there’s a lot that goes against the movie – Radagast, the rabbits, the Goblin King, the lack of character development, the frame rate and yes, the runtime. It’s a crying shame as a trimmer, more focused movie would have been fantastic.
With two more movies following, An Unexpected Journey sets a respectable standard to follow. It’s by no means a bad movie, it just falls victim to a bloated runtime with a lack of material to fill it with. Any journey back to Middle Earth is welcome, however, so bring on Bilbo and the Dwarves on their illustrious quest.
December 19th 2016