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THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

★★★★

A ROLLICKING ADVENTURE

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By Daniel Lammin
22nd December 2012
After innumerable trials and tribulations, Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated follow-up to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (2001-2003) trilogy has finally made it to the screen. Many barriers have been come along to try and throw ‘The Hobbit’ off-course, from the financial to the political to the medical, but perseverance persists, and for better or worse, we have a new Tolkien trilogy awaiting us over the next three years. The task Jackson and his team have set themselves is not an easy one. Not only are they (again) adapting one of the most beloved books in 20th century literature, but also working in the shadow of, arguably, the most significant cinematic achievement of the 21st century. There's a lot resting on this first film, ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’, including a significant shift in the art form itself.

Sixty years before the War of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is quite happy living a quiet and respectable life at his home in Hobbiton. However, through the influence of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), he becomes embroiled in the quest of a group of disparate and homeless dwarves to regain their ancient mountain home of Erabor, which was lost to them after an attack by the gold-hungry dragon Smaug. Led by the grave Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the thirteen dwarves, wizard and confused hobbit set off on their epic journey to the Lonely Mountain, encountering many a foe set on preventing their success. Hanging over the journey, however, is a growing shadow, a suggestion, Gandalf believes, that something far more sinister is beginning to emerge in Middle Earth...

It’s been over a decade since Peter Jackson first stunned the world with ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and it's fair to say that his work since has lacked the confidence and vision he demonstrated with that trilogy. With ‘An Unexpected Journey’, he seems to have found his feet again. This is an absolute cracker of a film, executed with unbounded energy and vision. Middle Earth has been once again rendered with startling reality and verisimilitude, but with a whimsy and humour to match the change of tone that comes with ‘The Hobbit’. Rather than trying to morph this much simpler tale into something tonally similar to ‘Rings’, Jackson and his team wisely stick close to the book’s playful nature. Colours are brighter, jokes are in abundance and the action comes thick and fast - and this is as it should be. Andrew Leslie’s cinematography is, as expected, absolutely superb, with the same epic quality one would expect, and luckily, New Zealand’s untouched landscape still has plenty to show off in this film. Howard Shore returns as composer to continue weaving the tapestry that won him two Oscars, and his score for ‘Journey’ is just as rich and exciting. And, of course, the visual effects are unparalleled, with many sequences literally breathtaking. The same sense of reality we came to expect ten years ago is very much alive and well here.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY - TRAILER

In the process of creating ‘The Hobbit’, Jackson made a number of controversial decisions, more of which I’ll get to. For most, his decision to expand Tolkien’s much smaller and slicker book into its own trilogy was one not overly well-received, with fears it would ruin the charm of the story and make it something bloated and unnecessary. If ‘Journey’ is anything to go by, those fears are unfounded. To expand the world of the book, Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro have used material from Tolkien’s other writings, and mostly with success. Chief in their expansions is opening up the world of the dwarves, giving more context to the quest, to Erabor and to Thorin. There are also suggestions of exploration in further installments of where these films fit within the lore and history of the One Ring, with many characters from the original trilogy returning to discuss the strange events occurring that will eventually lead to ‘The Lord of the Rings’. This expansion has its many positives, but unlike ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ (2001), which felt very much like a self-contained film in its own right, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ feels like the first part of a three-part film, the first act weighed down by heavy exposition to set up the story ahead. This can feel a tiny bit tedious at times, but the added material makes it intriguing, and with it out of the way, it is safe to assume the second and third installments won’t have to deal with similar problems.

In much the same way as ‘Rings’, the ensemble cast is, across the board, excellent. The dwarves are an absolutely terrific little ensemble, with James Nesbitt standing out as blunt but kind Bofur. Armitage gives Thorin the necessary weight to take the Aragorn spot as their brave but grave leader. McKellen is clearly having a blast being back in the hat and cloak as Gandalf, and watching his interpretation of the character is one of the great joys of returning to Middle Earth. A tremendous amount of the film, however, rests on Martin Freeman’s shoulders, taking on one of the most famous characters in literature, but he approaches it with ease and charisma. Bilbo is clearly a fish out of water, bumbling his way through this adventure, but there are moments where Freeman allows him to stop and consider. We see glimmers here of another side of this hobbit, and of how impressive Freeman is sure to be over the rest of the trilogy when Bilbo comes into his own. Once again, though, the real highlight is Andy Serkis’ Gollum, with the iconic riddles game with Bilbo. Gollum has always been a superfluous achievement for Serkis, and here he expands on his ring addiction with the shattering and unnerving moment where Gollum actually loses his "precious". It is one of the film's most memorable and moving moments.

Middle Earth has been once again rendered with startling reality and verisimilitude, but with a whimsy and humour to match the change of tone that comes with ‘The Hobbit’.

Also of concern with this new ‘Hobbit’ trilogy was the manner in which Jackson shot it. With the new advances in technology since ‘Rings’, he has chosen to shoot, not only in 3D, but in 48 frames per second, rather than the traditional 24 frames. This is the first time in history a feature has been shot in this manner, and it is a seismic shift in the viewing experience. The 3D work is, as expected, stunning, used to open up the world and landscape rather than as a gimmick. Real highlights of its use include a terrific chase through the goblin lairs of the Misty Mountains. The higher frame rate (HFR), however, is a slightly more contentious decision. It renders the image much smoother and sharper, with an infinitely greater level of detail, but in the process, strips the film of its cinematic quality. Jackson is one of the few filmmakers left working today who creates true cinema that really embraces the ideals of Lean and Kurosawa and Ford, but HFR gets in the way of that by making the film look more akin to a video game than a piece of cinema. It’s an attempt to replicate reality so successful that the film, especially its innumerable visual effects, actually look incredibly fake. For other films, the HFR would definitely work beautifully, and this massive jump in the form could work wonders for others, but one can’t help the niggling feeling that ‘The Hobbit’ might not have been the best film for it. As much as they are tonally very different, it would have been nice to see this new trilogy match the visual texture of the trilogy it is following. I’m looking forward to seeing the film in 24fps as a point of comparison.

If you’re going into ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ expecting an experience like ‘The Lord of the Rings’, you are going to be disappointed. This new film lacks the devastating emotional resonance of that masterpiece, but that is exactly how it should be. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a tragedy. ‘The Hobbit’ is a rollicking adventure. Thankfully, that is what Jackson has delivered to us in this first installment, and the kind of bombastic, ecstatic adventure we rarely get to see these days. While it may not be quite the home-run ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ is undoubtedly a triumph, a piece of pure epic filmmaking worth celebrating. It’s great to be back in Middle Earth, and to know we have two more visits left. And Jackson makes sure we want to come back - the final few minutes deliver more of a tease than any of the ‘Rings’ films did, and will definitely have you jumping in your seat, wishing the next twelve months would race by. In a year where blockbuster after blockbuster delivered nothing but hollow disappointment, thank goodness the most anticipated has delivered in its promise.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 26/12/2012
RUN TIME: 2h 49m
CAST: Martin Freeman - Bilbo Baggins
Ian McKellen - Gandalf
Andy Serkis - Gollum
Cate Balanchett - Galadriel
Benedict Cumberbatch - Smaug/necromancer
Stephen Fry - Master Of Laketown
Evangeline Lily - Tauriel
Hugo Weaving - Eldron
Luke Evans - Bard
Orlando Bloom - Legolas
DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson
WRITERS: Fran Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Guillermo Del Toro
Peter Jackson
www.thehobbit.com
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