Monday, 17 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Lee Pace, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt

Synopsis: Biblo (Freeman) lives an ordinary life in Bagginton and then one day is asked by a friendly wizard Gandalf (McKellen) to accompany a group of dwarves on an adventure to reclaim treasure. 

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have the obvious connotations of fantasy, yet there is also the notion of time attached to the works. All books took a considerable time to write (with J.R.R. Tolkien attempting numerous rewrites on The Hobbit) and the author was the grand age of 63 when his follow up to Bilbo's story, the trilogy on that "precious" ring, was published. When we think of the seminal novels, thoughts of long-winded description and hundreds-upon-hundreds of pages are not uncommon. In contemporary terms the stories are largely associated with Peter Jackson's epic adaptations - the saga that lasted from 2001 - 2003 and a further trilogy starting now in 2012 and finishing in 2014. Watching the adaptions thus far will take a hefty 727 minutes (and that's not counting the extended versions' run times), a time that could easily be matched by reading the books themselves, depending on your reading speed. There has, arguably, never been an adaption of a series of works that has gone beyond the full ten yards in order to engage the audience with that specific world. The Hobbit is no different; it is a grand spectacle filled with meaty action, vibrant aesthetics and stories and characters never to be forgotten (just remember to have a bathroom break before it begins).

For those not completely won over by the events of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit could equally disappoint. It is advertised as more frolicsome and funny than The Lord of the Rings but this is not always the case with the film. The beginning, which introduces Bilbo and the Dwarves, contains many amusing skits and songs but once the journey begins it recaptures the style of the now-classic trilogy. Swooping shots of the scenery along with Howard Shore's beautiful score are both help and hindrances to this new addition. In one sense, it reminds of you of how easy it is to fall in love with this world. However, these features also become overly-reminiscent of films past, sometimes distracting for when you need to be in the modern moment.

For the most part The Hobbit is boasting something very new. Not only does it focus on a story 60 years before the Fellowship was established, it enhances all of the technology once used to bring Middle-earth to life. Shot in 3D and 48fps (double the regular 24 frames per second to smooth out movement), The Hobbit is a dazzling new display of Tolkien's imagination. The mines, caves and shrubbery that makes up a large portion of the landscape is layered thanks to the 3D. What's more, the frame rate (that may go unnoticed by some) is quite astonishing at points. The handheld camera work that can often disorientate in films has a fluidity with the 48fps, perfected with the static shots. Both technologies together animate the action far beyond any previous cinematic means - purely immersive.

Even with an aesthetic that never fails to keep you wide-eyed, the film does have its moments of tedium. Just as The Lord of the Rings had scenes of dull exposition, The Hobbit is not without its moments of informative, though dreary, dialogue. With Jackson stretching out the 300 page book (give or take) to three films, the tried nature of this approach can sometimes seem blatant. The Rivendell sequence, for instance, reeks of some superfluousness. At times this added material lends itself well for characters, though can also spoil it. The appearance of Saruman should be a moment of sheer delight (especially given Sir Christopher Lee's fragile state) though he is mostly muted in preference of Gandalf and Galadriel's mind-messaging.

It is often the smaller roles within the film that garner more attention than the key players (Bilbo, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel). Sylvester McCoy as Radagast, Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin and Andy Serkis back as Gollum (known by many but with only a minor part in this trilogy) eat up their scenes with extremely pleasing results. All three characters have dialogue that could have easily made the remaining cast jealous - all playing larger-than-life roles in some pivotal scenes. With two played under the guise of a motion-capture suit it may be easy to dismiss their performance - or to forget the actors beneath the CGI - but the Great Goblin and Gollum are wonderfully, frighteningly real.

The final words of mention should go towards Martin Freeman taking the reigns of this entire film, and his accompanying Dwarves. Ian Holm's sweet, antiquated Bilbo was one of the many loveable side-characters of The Lord of the Rings - a brief part in The Hobbit's prologue sternly reminds you of his influence. It takes some time to get used to Bilbo as the lead as you may have forgotten the somewhat pedantic, obstinate ways of the Bag End resident. Freeman plays this with perfection, though it is easy to take this as a negative - the subtle grumpiness to the character does not make the most admirable hero. The charm that is an innate part of Ian Holm is yet to be discovered in Freeman (probably due to his age) and he is not always the idyllic leading man. It takes the entire film for Bilbo to emerge as the familiar hero figure - putting him in good stead for the following two films - making him a tad unlikeable and irritating throughout most of An Unexpected Journey.

Joining Bilbo on his quest is a pack of feral, boisterous Dwarves. Each has a unique personality (not all profiles fully illustrated so far) and make for a memorable movie mob. Focus is put on Richard Armitage as Thorin (leading man in the film's superb battle scenes), an skeptical warrior whose objective and blood-line comes first. He makes for an interesting foil to Bilbo in many segments, and an even better enemy of the Pale Orc Azog (a villain that brings a tremendous amount of ruckus). Much like the key-players, however, Thorin is not the most interesting of the Dwarves and the jovial Bofur (played by the ever-affable James Nesbitt) and "Doc" Dwarf Balin (Ken Stott) prove to be the best of the bunch. There is little fault in Freeman and Armitage's performances, it's mainly down to their character and their lack of experience at the forefront of a blockbuster.

Everyone will have their favourite Dwarf (if not by the end of The Hobbit, then certainly by its second sequel in 2014) and discussion will erupt over who should be seen as the chief character between Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf when it comes to The Hobbit. Outside of the story there will be no question over the man in charge. It would have been intriguing and imaginably entertaining to see what Guillermo del Toro would have brought to his vision of the text, yet the man at the helm since 2001 is suitably standing in as director. Peter Jackson, who knows Middle-earth better than nearly anyone, lovingly restores the tokens of Tolkien with an exciting new cast, memorable alumni, an enchanting story and an awe-inspiring aesthetic. Some may have grown tired of this world but for those eager to get back to it, The Hobbit gives and sets up what every fan is itching for - adventure.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

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