The return to Middle Earth may not quite be what fans of the original trilogy had hoped for, but An Unexpected Journey is never the less a great addition to the franchise with some strong performances and stunning scenery. Directed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy master Peter Jackson, The Hobbit makes us feel like we never left.
The Hobbit, for those not in the know, is based on the novel by J.R. Tolkien, and is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings series. Though the movie will be in three parts (with Desolation of Smaug following this year, and There And Back Again in 2014) The Hobbit was just a stand alone book, which makes the decision to split it into three films seem less about trying to capture a sprawling epic novel, and more about making money. I must confess I have never read The Hobbit, though I have read the trilogy.
It’s a more peaceful Middle Earth than what we saw at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, with the world seemingly at peace, at least on the surface. An Unexpected Journey sets us up on a journey with 13 dwarves, led by their king Thorin, and a Wizard in a quest to take back their dwarven home, deep underground in the lonely mountain from the evil dragon Smaug. The problem with this story is that it’s very insular in the grander scheme of Middle Earth, and since this isn’t an epic battle to save the entire world, the story loses a lot of gravity.
On paper the plot sounds paper thin yet overly ridiculous, and that statement isn’t too much of a stretch, but since we’re deep in the realm of fantasy here, it’s ok to let it slide. The plot isn’t too dissimilar from that of the original trilogy. A group of characters on a journey somewhere. What makes the difference though is the execution. The fellowship had a lot of heart. We loved all of the characters and all had unique and distinct personalities. The Dwarves in The Hobbit, whilst often humerous, fail to provide any of the warmth we get from the original fellowship.
Viewing The Hobbit I didn’t feel any emotional connection to these characters and their quest. They want their home back, which is something to be able to grasp on to, but without a set of distinct personalities it’s hard to feel for them. About the only fleshed out member of this Dwarven crew is Thorin, who is part of a line of great Dwarven kings, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage. He is about the only member of the company of Dwarves who has any real dialogue (well, dialogue that isn’t daft one liners anyway) and it’s exciting to see how everything pans out.
Ian McKellen puts in another turn as Gandalf, and does it like he has never been away from the part, with all the winks and nudges to the audience you will ever need. Much has been made of Martin Freeman’s casting as Bilbo Baggins, but I can’t think of anyone I would rather play him. Freeman is a great actor, and whilst he doesn’t get much to do until the final third, he plays the part with all the heart you want from a lead in these films, and there’s definitely echo’s of Elijah Wood as Frodo, whether that’s deliberate or not I do not know.
The Hobbit at times feels like a string of action sequences strung together. With the exception of the overly long and slow set up involving a slightly humorous Dwarve invasion of Bilbo’s home. The change in pace is a bit jarring and doesn’t quite click how it’s supposed to.
Returning to Middle Earth is as beautiful as one would expect, with lashings of gorgeous scenery to chew on, The Hobbit sometimes feels like a tourist guide for New Zealand rather than a film. Unfortunately I can’t lavish the same praise on the CGI, when the action is slow, it’s brilliant, but once thing’s speed up, everything becomes a bit of a mess. Perhaps this is the fault of the Blu Ray format, or maybe I should have just seen it at the cinema. In the original trilogy, a lot of Orcs were played by real actors, with make up and to that end, were very effective, in The Hobbit, it’s obvious that most of the battle scenes, the actors are just slashing at thin air and it really takes you out of the moment. For a studio as advanced as WETA, it’s disappointing and there was nothing in The Hobbit that couldn’t have been done with actors.
The exception to this is with the returning character of Gollum, once again played by a motion captured Andy Serkis. From the moment he shows up in the final third of the film my face lit up. Serkis is brilliant and clearly loves the role. The interaction between Gollum and Bilbo is excellent with some brilliant dialogue and a lot of tension. These scenes are absolutely the high point of the film and it’s unfortunate that we’re unlikely to see him again.
Whilst An Unexpected Journey was good, it definitely felt a lot like it was holding back. This is perhaps to do with the decision to split into three films, I imagine a lot of scenes that would have appeared where moved to the second film. The pace clips along nicely but the film doesn’t get going until the final third, and there’s a palpable sense that something in the background is not as should be. This was definitely an appetiser for what is sure to be the main course in this year’s Desolation of Smaug, which will finally give us a glimpse of the great dragon, and allow more Benedict Cumberbatch, whether that’s in his guise as Smaug’s voice, or that of The Necromancer.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is well worth the watch, and I dare say, the purchase on Blu Ray. There’s enough here for fans of the original trilogy to sink their teeth into, and whilst at times it seem’s a bit more aimed at kids than The Lord of the Rings did, the final third more than makes up for any shortcomings.