The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Film review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), directed by Peter Jackson

hobbitanunexpectedjourneyIn a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Bilbo is writing a book for his nephew (?) Frodo (Elijah Wood), about when he left the Shire, with its homely second breakfasts and elevenses, in order to go on an Adventure. We all know what happens next, because that’s when the Lord of the Rings trilogy starts.

Sixty years previously, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) came to the Shire. Not to show off his famous fireworks this time, but to entice the 60 years younger version of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to come on said Adventure. Bilbo isn’t taken with the idea, because he’s quite happy where he is, thank you and good day.

He’s even less impressed when there’s a knock on the door later that day. There’s a dwarf. Then there’s another dwarf. And another, and another … There are twelve of them in total (Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow and Adam Brown), and they proceed to eat his entire larder. And Gandalf comes along again! And yet another dwarf (Richard Armitage) shows up! And they still want poor Bilbo to come along on an adventure. The dwarves lost their ancestral home to a dragon, and they want to reclaim it, but could use Bilbo’s help.

And, to make a long story short, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End ends up going on an unexpected journey … and there is so much to say about this film that I hardly know where to begin, but I’ll try my best not to give too much away of the actual plot.

Also starring Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin, with Christopher Lee as Saruman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, because while they weren’t in the original Hobbit novel, they were in the Lord of the Rings movies, which people can relate to.

When I reviewed The Hobbit in August 2011, I mentioned that there seemed to be little point to having twelve dwarves and Thorin, because none of them really stood out, personality-wise, except for Thorin. They just all had really quaint names, and seemed to exist mostly because it was fun to keep writing all of their names down. The same goes for the film. The dwarves who get the most amount of lines and screen time are Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), and Bofur (James Nesbitt), and the one with the long, light grey beard. (I’m crap with names.) I’m not sure Bombur got to say a single line. The rest of them I can’t tell apart by name, but apparently three of the actors doubled as voices for some trolls.

The film is called The Hobbit, and while it’s technically about Bilbo, you could have fooled me – it could easily have been called The Dwarf Prince, because it’s really Thorin’s story. As a fan of the actor playing Thorin (Richard Armitage), I’m certainly not complaining. It’s just … I thought it was supposed to be about Bilbo. But instead, we get the back story of how the dwarves lived in the Lonely Mountain, in the underground city of Erebor, until Smaug the dragon came and drove them all away. Prince Thorin, whose grandfather was “the King under the Mountain”, wants to have the dwarven home back. Anyway, there’s plenty of Thorin, and he does such a good job playing him that fellow fans will have plenty to squee about.

In fact, there is plenty to squee about even if you look past Thorin for a sec. “Hot dwarves”. They really weren’t kidding. Fili and Kili (and Thorin) are eyecandy, pure and simple. Weapon-wielding, badass dwarf eyecandy. Which is just as well, because neither orcs nor trolls will win beauty contests any time soon, and the Great Goblin’s pustule-filled chin bag is definitely far from appetising. Ughhh.

This brings us neatly on to CGI. Very well done. In fact, there were instances where I wasn’t sure if the orcs were CGI or people in prosthetics. Best of all, the motion-captured Gollum. Wow. The level of detail is amazing (look at the little, fluffy hairs on his ears!) and the acting is second to none. Andy Serkis, sir, you have surpassed yourself! Gollum is raving lunatic one second, evil mastermind next, childlike, heartbroken and devastated, scary, cunning, plotting … such a mixed bag of emotions and how quickly his moods change! He is both pathetic, hilarious, creepy as hell, AND you end up feeling sorry for him! I was completely blown away by the performance. Well played, sir, well played! Then again, it’s nice to see a familiar face, even if said face is … both disturbing and disturbed.

I’ve read reviews that say the film goes as far as the end of chapter six of the book. I don’t remember how many chapters there were, but for those of you who have read the book, and without giving too much away, it translates as “just after the eagles”.

The cameos by Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman were nice, but not necessarily necessary. For dragging the story out, sure. They’re making a short book into a trilogy, of course they have to pad it out. The padding is done by letting there be songs (mercifully excluded from the Lord of the Rings) – my favourite is the powerful and evocative Misty Mountain, which also serves as the main theme for the film; using old Bilbo and Frodo to connect with the original trilogy, playing out the back story of Thorin and his people, sumptuous landscape shots of gorgeous Middle Earth New Zealand, and to include content from other things Tolkien wrote related to this particular story. I think it works. The film is about ten minutes short of three hours, and while the start was a bit slow, once it picked up its pace, we both never gave a second thought as to how long the film actually is.

My problem with Galadriel, sadly the only female in the entire film (except for the ponies and a hobbit extra), is that she feels so … theatrical, like every move is carefully choreographed, with every part of her appearance meticulously arranged so that she feels more like a beautiful statue than a living person. Then again, she’s supposed to be a bit otherworldly, isn’t she, so I guess that might have something to do with it. Plus the elves are all a bit hoity-toity.

We saw the film in 3D with the high frame rate of 48 frames per second instead of the bog-standard 24. When we’ve seen 3D films before, we’ve never been impressed. It always looks like they’ve just taken 2D footage and layered it to make it look 3D-ish – because those films were shot in 2D and the 3D is created in post-production. The effect is basically puppet theatre. One person is flat but slightly closer to the camera than the other flat person. The Hobbit was actually shot in 3D, so for once – gasp – it actually felt like the £2 surcharge per ticket for 3D was worth it. There was well-rounded depth, and the 3D was truly well done. Then again, I would have been just as happy to see it in 2D, because it’s still a stunning film any way you look at it.

The double frame rate is interesting. This is done to make movement smoother, and when the camera pans, you don’t get the motion blur effect. It does what it says on the tin. When there’s lots of movement, you get clarity and focus. When there’s little movement, it felt as if the movements were ever so slightly too quick, like when you fast forward something in 1.5x. If you look at the very beginning, when Bilbo is writing, you’ll see what I mean. Doesn’t it feel as if it goes just a fraction faster than it should? I thought it was just me, but the Squeeze had made the exact same observation.

Another thing the 48 fps gives is a feeling of realism, and that’s what director Peter Jackson was after, to make it feel real. The problem with it is that it feels too real. The hyper-realism it brings makes it go from looking real to looking, well, the opposite. Paradoxically, they’ve made something look fake by trying to make it look more true to life! What I would say is that it’s nice to have seen it, fun to have tried it, but in the future, I really wouldn’t go out of my way to watch something in 48 fps. What’s the point, other than showing other film makers that you can shoot something in 48 fps? I want to see a good story told well, and that’ll do me. If there’s a bit of motion blur during a sweeping camera shot, I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter, as it’s not what I’m in the cinema for – I’m at the cinema to see a (hopefully) good film. That’s the object of the exercise, not to criticise that I can’t make out all the details of a forest while the camera’s sweeping over it.

Besides, the brain can’t process too many things at once anyway (especially true for introverts), which is why I’m a hit hesitant when it comes to 3D in general. If it’s a big battle scene with lots of movement, the brain simply can’t keep up with everything, especially if it’s also in 3D. You can’t take it all in, because you can’t see every movement on a big screen and process it all at the same time. You can’t take it all in at once in 2D either, but no one ever seemed to think that was an issue before.

While I’m biased about Thorin, for the obvious fact of being a Richard Armitage fangirl, and therefore would naturally swear to Thorin being my favourite character … aside from Thorin, my favourite was Radagast the Brown. When I asked the Squeeze who his favourite character was, he said the same. Radagast was awesome. But then I guess I would say that about an eccentric wizard living in the woods with a bird’s nest in his hair and who cares for the animals … ohh, that gorgeous little (CGI) hedgehog! I hope there’s more Radagast in the next two movies, even though he has bird poo down the side of his face. At first, I thought he had some kind of lichen growing on him, being all Green Man-y and that, and then I realised it was bird poo, and remembered reading something about that in an interview.

If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy (or read the books, heh), everything a certain character says, you’ll probably want to say “oh yeah? Pull the other one” every time he opens his mouth. Know the one I mean? Yeah, the guy who goes “This here thing? I’m sure it’s nothing, you’re all just over-reacting” when everyone else knows it’s most definitely something. You’ll know he one I mean when you see it.

The scenography, props, costumes, prosthetics and make-up are great. I love how each and every dwarf in the party have their own, unique look. It makes them more of a character than just … well, their quaint rhyming names. It’s nice to be back in Middle Earth, even though The Hobbit is more whimsical than the previous trilogy. (The dwarves have a food fight and a burp-off, for goodness sake!) As a film, it’s definitely worth seeing at the cinema because of its epic feel. It’s not just a film, it’s an event, and a big one at that. An occasion, you might say.

I didn’t think that highly of the book, I enjoy the Lord of the Rings films but still (ten years later) haven’t got around to reading The Return of the King yet, because the previous two books were, hrm, tedious. Tolkien created fantasy as we know it today, and I’m grateful for that, because I like the fantasy genre, but Tolkien’s own writings aren’t so much my cup of tea, to be honest, which is likely why I prefer the films. (THERE, I SAID IT.) The second part of this new trilogy is due in December next year, and it will be interesting to see how the story continues on from here, and what else they’re doing differently. It’s not going to be a series of kids films, despite the book being for children, because it’s a bit too dark and serious (and scary, to be fair) for that, but it’s still a must-see for fantasy fans worldwide.

Expectations were so high for An Unexpected Journey that it would be nigh impossible for Peter Jackson et al to exceed our expectations. Is the film the best Tolkien adaptation yet? It’s the most technically advanced one yet, sure, but the best? It takes too long to get off the ground, but once it gets lift-off, you’re in for a marvellous ride.

I just wish I could have a neutral opinion about Thorin. Of course I think he was great. Great performance, great look (hot dwarf!), and so on. The character was a bit of a dick, though, let’s face it. Way to carry a grudge. However, I think he pulled off being regal very well. When I mentioned I couldn’t really give a neutral opinion about Thorin, the Squeeze kindly provided one: “It was like watching Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood. It was the same character, pretty much. I didn’t see all of Robin Hood, but still, it seemed to be a lot of Thorin Gisborne or Guy of Oakenshield going on there.” I can sort of see his point there … sort of. Not entirely, but then I’m more familiar with Guy as a character than he is.

As I can’t look at this film and disconnect the part of me that wants to jump up and down with excitement yelling “RICHARD’S ON FILM, HOORAY!!” and whose heart flutters a little extra to see his name in big letters as number three in the end credits … and who can’t help but somehow feel so incredibly proud of his achievement … How can I give a completely unbiased view of Thorin and Richard Armitage’s performance? Do I think it’s brilliant because it truly is amazing, or do I think it’s brilliant because I know how much the part meant to him, he’s such a nice guy and I love his acting and everything he does? That’s why I can’t wait to hear what non-fans have to say about him. It’s all well and good to have twenty fanbloggers praise him to high heaven, but if we’re all devout followers of his and have been for years, are we telling the truth or are we just seeing what we want to see? That’s my concern.

If you’re reading this and weren’t already a Richard Armitage fan before The Hobbit, I’d love for you leave a comment below and share your (hopefully) non-biased opinion. Of course, if you’re a fan, I’d love to hear your views too, but I think that goes without saying!

Martin Freeman’s Bilbo reminded me of Martin Freeman’s Arthur Dent. The two characters definitely have a few things in common. Both are perfectly happy with their normal lives, but get drawn into an adventure quite by other people’s doing, and then they spend the rest of the trip in a sort of bewildered, bemused state where all they’d really like is to sit down, put their feet up and have a nice cup of tea. Freeman plays that character oh so well. I can understand why Peter Jackson wanted him as Bilbo, he’s perfect! Just like Ian McKellen as Gandalf. Marvellous actor. It just wouldn’t have been the same if someone else had taken over that hat, so thank goodness he returned!

To summarise, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a perfect film. It has issues, but the issues aren’t overwhelming, and like I mentioned previously, three hours didn’t feel like three hours. We definitely had fun watching it, and we can’t wait for the next instalment. I’m just not sure there are any non-technical Oscars to be had here, even if we had a blast watching it. Some of the plot was a bit bland, most of the characters were just “some bearded blokes in the background” or CGI baddies, but if you have a party of 15, there’s not a lot you can do about it, unless you want the trilogy to span 15+ hours.

4 out of 5 caves.

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