Review of the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Like the film’s titular hero, Peter Jackson’s adaption of the Hobbit was set upon an unpredictable path since its announcement. The project underwent several drafts and possible directors until Jackson stepped in and every fan breathed a huge sigh of relief. But not all were optimistic; some were outraged at the decision to split the slim ‘fairy story’ into three parts. Others were joyous in the knowledge that they would be able to return to Middle Earth three more times. Though one thing went unquestioned, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was always going to put backsides in cinema seats and get critics talking.
And so, has Jackson done it again? The answer is indisputable: he has.
The first few moments of An Unexpected Journey prompt a pleasant sense of déjà vu for fans, as the familiar rooms of Bag End fade into view alongside Howard Shore’s equally familiar score. “My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures,” so narrates Ian Holm and begins a recounting of his adventures. But thankfully Jackson doesn’t linger too long in the present, allotting Holm and a returning Elijah Wood’s Frodo only a few minutes screen time before introducing us to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. Another thing that is indisputable is how perfect Freeman is for the role, striding into Holm’s hairy oversized feet and instantly making Bilbo his own.
But Freeman doesn’t tarry in the squashy armchairs and well stocked parlour of Bag End for long before Gandalf shows up with a host of dwarves and the offer of an adventure.
As Jackson has said ever since he stepped back into Middle Earth, the Hobbit’s tone is lighter than the Ring’s trilogy. And the most clear indicator of this are the thirteen, or rather twelve (Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield is stern and angry: with good reason) merry dwarves who show up, invade Bilbo’s parlour and break into song. Despite the fact there are thirteen of them, Jackson doesn’t leave one or two in the shadows, they all have personalities and it’s hard not to smile when they’re on screen.
But make no mistake in thinking this is a children’s film as we, through brilliantly staged, brooding flashback, are shown just why Thorin is so angry and what Gandalf requires Bilbo for. The great dragon Smaug (shown only in brief glimpses and then only a flicker of a tail or stamp of dwarf crushing foot) attacks the Dwarf city of Erebor and claims the place and its heaving vaults of gold, as its own. And because hobbit’s can in Gandalf’s words, “pass unseen by most if they choose,” he wants Bilbo to be the dwarves ‘burglar’ and help them steal back their treasure and regain their homeland.
From this point on, Jackson pulls us away from the green hills of the Shire and into the sweeping plains and deep forests of Middle Earth. Again New Zealand is presented in all its glory as Tolkien’s world and what a backdrop it provides. Taking full advantage of his homeland’s landscapes, Jackson takes us along with the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf as they encounter Orcs, Goblins, Wargs and all other manner of creatures brought to stunning life by Weta workshop. It is these encounters that many critics have slated for being too episodic but how else could it have been done? It is a quest after all.
Weta have outdone themselves once again in the special effects department, presenting us with cities and creatures that are so masterfully rendered it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t real. But it is not the cities and creatures that truly show Weta’s superiority. Andy Serkis’s motion-captured Gollum is once again a triumph. Eerily realistic, Gollum meets with Bilbo in a cave deep in the Goblin mines where they have a game of riddles. It’s a brilliant scene, with Gollum’s schizophrenia masterfully played by Serkis and the tension expertly built by Jackson. The encounter drips with foreboding and suspense, not least for it is here that Bilbo first finds that eponymous ring.
After all the breath-taking battles with Middle Earth’s most gruesome inhabitants the film reaches its climax as the motley band of dwarves, hobbit and wizard face off Thorin’s enemy (introduced in another stirring flashback) the white Orc, Azog. But what is one final battle after so many dangers? The heroes triumph, escaping on Eagle back and we are shown a glimpse of the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, the dwarves’ homeland and destination. And in a crowd pleasing final scene we are treated with a brief, but no less tantalising scene as Smaug awakens.
In reflection, it cannot be denied that Jackson has delivered an engrossing journey back into Middle Earth. There are flaws, but they are few and far between. For those viewers who are not diehard fans, the battles may go on slightly too long and the scenes with Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast may seem arbitrary. But for those obsessed with Tolkien’s world, Jackson hit’s every note. This is a stirring, engrossing, masterfully scored film, and no mistake. Even the near three hour run time is a blessing, for as Gandalf the Grey so sagely says, “All good stories deserve embellishment.”