|Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey|
As a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) books and films, I was really looking forward to The Hobbit, even though I was dismayed to discover it was being split into three films, because really, how much can you drag a children’s book out?
Quite a bit, if the first film in the trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, is anything to go by.
Clocking in at just under three hours long, An Unexpected Journey is a labour of love for Peter Jackson and co, and a measure of love for its audience. Luckily, I love the LOTR films enough to sit The Hobbit out, although there were many, many points during the film where I wished I didn’t.
We begin with a brief history lesson about the glory days of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, and see it sacked by a massive dragon, its people killed or scattered – including the legendary warrior and dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).
We then join The Hobbit on the day The Fellowship of the Ring starts – the day of Bilbo’s birthday. Ian Holm is back as Bilbo, with Elijah Wood as Frodo, for a brief appearance before we’re taken back in time to learn more about Thorin, and then brought back to Bilbo’s home, a site we know so well, for the introduction of the main story (we’re about 15 minutes in at this point) – Bilbo (now played as a young man by Martin Freeman) setting off on an adventure to help Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Thorin and a company of 12 other dwarves to reclaim Erebor.
And it’s here the action, sort of, begins, although there have already been two major battle scenes on screen before this point. There’s a long, drawn-out introduction to all the dwarves, from the fat one to the wise one to the mischievous ones to the bitter one and so on and so on. It’s a good 20 minutes, at least, of banter, throwing food around and a mournful singalong before we finally get out of the shire and onto the road.
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey is really just one long introduction to all the characters, from the ones we already know from the LOTR (Bilbo and Gandalf) to the ones we don’t (the dwarves). We see them talk their way out of trouble, proving their intelligence (or lack thereof in some cases). We see them visit Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and get an insight into their relationship with others outside the dwarf world. We see them in fight after fight after fight, where we’re shown their bravery and their skill. We see them talk about their pasts, and understand why they are the way they are today. By the end of the film, I felt like I could write a 300-page biography for every character (and that’s not a good thing).
It may seem like An Unexpected Journey is short on action and long on exposition, but nothing could be further from the truth. By the end I’d lost count of the amount of big set piece battle scenes, plus the many other action pieces (including mountains turning into gigantic stone people and fighting each other). I could have done without a fight or two (or seven), as those earlier on the film dimmed the impact of the two major ones at the end for me.
That is perhaps why I found Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum/Smeagol (Andy Serkis) scarier and more tense than the battle scene running parallel to it, where the dwarves and Gandalf fight thousands of goblins. Or perhaps the scene between Bilbo and Gollum/Smeagol was brilliant because of the acting, and because you know Bilbo’s actions here turn Middle Earth on its axis later in life. Serkis is stunning as Gollum/Smeagol, even better than he was in the LOTR. He’s creepier, and more tragic, and I found myself genuinely scared by what he was going to do. And Freeman as Bilbo all the way through the film is the perfect mix of scared and gung ho, but in his scenes with Gollum/Smeagol takes it to a whole new level. Their encounter made up the best scenes in the film by a mile.
It’s not just Serkis and Freeman who are great. As with the LOTR, Jackson et al have brought together some great actors. Armitage brings an underlying sense of loss and anger to everything Thorin does – he’s half Aragorn and half Boromir, in the most perfect way, and particularly shows that in the climax to the film. Comparisons to the LOTR are also due with characters like Kili (Aidan Turner) and Fili (Dean O’Gorman), who are The Hobbit‘s Merry and Pippin, and James Nesbitt as Bofur is great. The rest of the dwarves are pretty forgettable, and their fellowship is nowhere near as compelling as that in the LOTR.
The film has been shot in 3D 48-frames-per-second, which is something technical I don’t really understand but is apparently meant to make everything look amazing. In reality, I think the 3D aspect didn’t really bring anything substansial to the film, and wearing the glasses for three hours was a pain.
On the flip side The Hobbit is full of beautiful shots of sweeping landscapes and all the places the gang visit. The shots across Middle Earth take up time, and are often unnecessary to the tale – without them the film could have been at least 15 minutes shorter. They do, however, show the work of a great CGI team and the fantastic locations of New Zealand, but they’re not quite as magical as they were when we saw them in LOTR.
That magic is what is missing in The Hobbit. Yes, it’s a good film, but I found myself wishing it was over about an hour before it actually was, which is a pity. I can’t imagine what the next two films are going to be like, but I can only hope they take more of the good aspects of The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (Freeman, Serkis, the occasional battle scenes), and not the bad aspects (the length, please, make them shorter).
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey largely served as a reminder that Tolkein’s world can all too easily be rendered badly., so I’m off to remind myself how well it can be interpreted on film by watching the LOTR.