Peter Jackson’s latest venture returns to Middle Earth for An Unexpected Journey, the first instalment in the three part adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. Highly anticipated, the atmosphere in Leicester Square on December 12th was charged with excitement.
After a rocky start when Guillermo del Toro left the delayed production for other commitments, Jackson has taken the helm again, and the film definitely feels part of the Lord of the Rings family, with many crew members returning ten years on. Del Toro receives a writing credit with the usual team of Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. The film stars Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey and Richard Armitage as King Thorin Oakenshield, with a staunch supporting cast playing dwarves and elves and voicing CGI monsters.
So, where to begin – of course, with the story; Bilbo Baggins’ adventure with the dwarves and their quest to regain their homeland.
The film begins just before the events of the Lord of the Rings, on the day of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party. But Bilbo has other things on his mind, and begins to write the tale of his own adventure sixty years before for his nephew Frodo [a cameo by Elijah Wood]. When Ian Holm begins “ In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…” it’s quite a moment.
We see the tale of King Thorin’s youth and the coming of the Dragon that destroyed his home and scattered his people. The story of this new trilogy dips into Tolkien’s other writings, aiming to tell far more than the book covered, and will explore his work further over the next two films.
Remember the scene in LOTR when the Fellowship come across the three trolls that have been turned to stone? Here’s how it happened. The CGI trolls are suitably disgusting and authentically Cockney, true to Tolkien’s dialogue.
The dialogue has it all, in turns amusing, chatty, epic and portentous – it’s all there, with echoes of Tolkien’s other Middle Earth languages. There are one or two odd moments though; Thorin’s “ Oin – Gloin – get a fire goin’ ” feels a bit off, and when the Goblin King, voiced by an urbane Barry Humphries, remarks “that’ll do it” on having his stomach sliced open, I felt they’d struck a rare wrong note.
There’s a great variety of characters among the twelve dwarves, and there are no posh dwarves here. The dwarves’ accents come from all over the British Isles – it’s a nice touch as they wouldn’t be speaking English, so the mix of Yorkshire, Irish, London and Scottish tones all serve to highlight this band as the few who came from all over Middle Earth to answer Thorin’s call.
The elves appear as a pursed, disapproving and untrustworthy lot, floating about draped over harps and stags and only coming to help when it suits them. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond return, their poised, elegant performances truly otherworldly.
The film was hit by criticism when a preview audience were shown excerpts in its super detailed mode and said it looked like a football match or a soap opera. Certainly every detail of the cinematography is crystal clear, including pores on skin, but this is no problem at all – everything looks fabulous. The only issue – when the camera pans along, the motion blur is still occasionally quite difficult to look at.
The Hobbit was shot with a mixture of live action in stunning New Zealand mountain, river and forest locations and on studio sets with CGI backgrounds, with real and CGI characters. The film uses an enormous amount of CGI to spectacular effect. Environments – the Elves’ fantasy palace home all waterfalls and soaring columns, Gollum’s dark, dank cave and the goblins’s deep firelit hellhole – are totally convincing. The marrying of CGI and the real world is superb, and the scene with the trolls especially is energetic, funny and gross. The wizard Radagast’s woodland creatures are perhaps a little over-cute, but a great contrast to the Goblin King, wargs and goblins.
The only issue I had with the CGI work was with some of the stunt and action sequences and an occasionally casual approach to danger and pain – hideous falls which would have caused horrific injury and death are brushed off as the dwarves bounce back up again; too huge leaps sometimes gave a cartoonish feel, and rather disengaged me from the action and the danger.
I did dislike the repeated comical mass “woaaaahhh…” whenever the dwarves found themselves hanging perilously off something and about to be dashed to their deaths, which did happen rather often.
Sound design is superb. Howard Shore revisits some familiar themes to link with LOTR, and an epic sweeping new score includes an episode faithful to the book, where the dwarves sing a sombre song of home, sending shivers up the spine. The LOTR tradition of an end credit song continues with a reprise in a young and folky version.
Costume, hair and makeup are fabulous, the Elves all pristine gowns and armour, mixed with the 18th Century Hobbiton vibe and Viking-style leather, metal and furs for the dwarves. There’s a lot of hair in this film! The dwarves are particularly gifted here, each with complicated plaits, braids and decorations everywhere – including on beards – and the prosthetic ears and noses are most impressive.
Performances – the best bits …
Freeman’s polite, precise, fernickity and dignified everyman, capable of extraordinary things he didn’t know he could do … Andy Serkis reprising his astounding physical and vocal performance as Gollum … The Riddles in the Dark episode is atmospheric, sinister and gripping. It’s Gollum’s only appearance in the film and brings a defining moment when Bilbo’s mercy sets a train of events that will be significant in LOTR.
Armitage is terrific, his flawed, sullen and noble king Thorin desperate to regain his home and kingdom and reunite his people [a theme Tolkien would revisit later with the character of Aragorn] is the heart of the story, counterpointed by Stott’s gently humorous and tender performance as his confidant, the old warrior Balin.
A few last thoughts
The dwarves’ arrival, a loud, smelly, hungry mob about to turn Bilbo’s life upside down, is great fun, there’s heroic live action fighting by the actors and the stunt team and some coy little glimpses of Smaug the Dragon will keep you warm for the next one …
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is hugely entertaining, and highly recommended. PH
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo Del Toro
Running time: 169 mins
Genre: Adventure, fantasy
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian Holm, Ian McKellen, Aidan Turner, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Connolly, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Richard Armitage, Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry
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