Wednesday, 12 December 2012

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Dir.: Peter Jackson
With: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

‘If Baggins loses, we eats it whole, precious.’

I’d always known that it was going to be pretty hard to be objective about this movie. I am a huge fan of the books and “The Lord of the Rings” movies and, like most of other fans, feel a personal connection to them. In fact “The Hobbit” was one of the first “proper” novels I ever read, aged 8. I remember being totally engrossed in Bilbo’s adventures and finding some of the chapters eye-opening (I think that the Battle of Five Armies was probably my first ever encounter with literary violence and death). Then two years later I got my hands onto “The Fellowship of the Ring” but had to leave it for a few more years because the black riders gave me nightmares! So you see, I’ve loved hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards for over 15 years.

This is also why I found it especially annoying that most journalists have been so negative about “The Hobbit” even before it came out. During the past months it's been impossible to open a newspaper without reading new articles that criticised Warner Brothers, Peter Jackson and the decision to make the film into a trilogy. It really felt like whoever wrote the articles, wanted the films to fail– is it schadenfreude, creative envy or just being spiteful, I don’t know. I also don’t understand what is wrong with having faith in someone who managed to pull off adapting an unadaptable fantasy opus into three successful and artistically meaningful films. Note that it was Peter Jackson who decided to make “The Hobbit” into three films instead of two, even though he was initially opposed by the studio. Naturally, the studio will make more money from this, but if the first film is terrible, chances are that less people would ever want to see the rest. In a way, there is more pressure on Peter Jackson to excel. And just look at the interviews with him, watch the making-of extras – does he really strike you as a devious moneymaker without any artistic integrity? The answer is, quite frankly, no – so let us just watch the movie in our own time, make up our own minds and then discuss it, instead of slagging off “The Hobbit” in blind ignorance.

Now with my rant over – what I thought about the movie.

I think it is a film made primarily for fans of the book. It is very close in spirit to Tolkien’s first novel, much lighter than LOTR and with plenty of comedy moments. Given that “An Unexpected Journey” deals with the first third of the story, Peter Jackson indulges us with some meticulous details of Tolkien’s world. The unexpected dwarf party at Bilbo’s, the encounter with dim-witted trolls and Radagast the Brown are given a surprising amount of screen time. Thus the beginning of the film is quite slow-paced and lacks the drama that maybe some people would expect. However, the novel also starts off slow and gradually grows darker and more sinister. So I would not worry about the second and third films – they have much meatier chunks of the novel to work with.

At the same time, there are clear links with the LOTR films – the prologue that tells us about the King under the Mountain and Smaug’s conquest of Erebor is majestic and harks back to the dwarfish splendour previously seen in Moria. Likewise, Middle-earth is as beautiful as ever and when you see our heroes run through its vistas accompanied by an epic soundtrack, it sends shivers down your spine. And then there is Gandalf the Grey, brilliantly played by Ian McKellen. He is younger, more sly and down-to-earth and does a lot more magic than in LOTR. So far, so good. 

The new and interesting element is of course, the unlikely band of brothers – veeery different from and much more hairy than The Fellowship of the Ring. We have 13 belching and not-so-graceful dwarves and one adventure-averse hobbit. Whereas the Fellowship consisted of quite deep, fleshed out and  diverse characters, the 13 dwarves move as one and are given very little characterisation, apart from Thorin Oakenshield, Balin and Kili (aka the missing member of the Middle-earth boyband). Thorin (a very smoldering Richard Armitage) is the tallest dwarf and leader of the company, a king in exile with all the bitterness, hurt pride and authority that comes with the status. He is full of vengeance and a great warrior and has very little patience for little Bilbo.

The hobbit is perhaps the ultimate underdog, small, unimpressive and unsure, he ends up surprising everyone and himself most of all. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast – he oscillates between ‘a-fish-out-of-water’ and ‘rise-up-to-the-challenge’ modes with much charm. And unlike his tormented nephew, Frodo, he keeps his wits about him – even in the famous ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene when he meets Gollum for the first time. Apparently, this was the first scene they shot and you can see poor Martin/Bilbo being under constant psychological attack by the unhinged Andy Serkis/Gollum. It is one of the key moments in the book and has the same level of intensity in the film.

As the adventures become more serious, the tone of the movie changes too – suddenly you realise that this is not just a fun quest with some funny dwarves and that much darker forces are at play. Azog, for example, or the Pale Orc is the stuff of nightmares and his encounter with Thorin is terrifying. Once it is over, Bilbo naively suggests that the worst is behind them, but in reality it is still to come. I guess that the next film will have Beorn, Mirkwood and perhaps Smaug (annoyingly, Smaug is never fully revealed in the prologue, so we will have to wait until next year to see and hear the Golden Wyrm) and the third will be primarily about the Town of Dale and the Battle of Five Armies.

I don’t think that “The Hobbit” is better or worse than LOTR, it is just a different story with different characters who inhabit the same world. Obviously, the sense of novelty is worn off by now and the expectations are higher. But the movie delivers in being true to the original material and re-creating the magic and grandeur of Middle-earth. As you remember, in LOTR the journey takes us south, here we travel eastwards. These new parts of Middle-earth are just as enchanting and exciting as Rohan and Fangorn Forest and I for one cannot wait to see more.

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