Thursday, 27 December 2012

Film Review: The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

"I'm going on an adventure"

This review may contain mild spoilers.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo
Peter Jackson returns to Middle-Earth with the first third of his highly anticipated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel, The Hobbit. Maintaining complete continuity from his earlier works on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson's first Hobbit movie is one that is different in tone but not different in quality.

So put down your pitchforks and your torches. It's okay, just calm down. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is good. Very good in fact, certainly not deserving of many of the mixed reviews circulating around currently.

Whisked away from the comfort of his quaint hobbit hole, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) joins the company of Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his troupe of a dozen dwarves who are out to reclaim their lost Dwarven homeland of Erebor from Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Much like the source material, the Hobbit is very much set apart from the LOTR trilogy tonally. Not concerned with Dark Lords, Rings of Power and the end of days, the Hobbit plays out more like a children's fairytale complete with wizards, dwarves, dragons and a great adventure.

Ian McKellan reprises his role as Gandalf the Grey
Lighter and more approachable for those not attuned with Tolkien folklore, Bilbo's journey is easily to get on board with given his 'everyman' nature; he values home comforts like his armchair and his pantry. Part of what makes Bilbo such a relatable character is the brilliance of his portrayal by Martin Freeman. Freeman is able to step into the role seemingly with ease and arrives fully formed. It doesn't take long for him to establish himself amongst the world of Middle-Earth, his character firmly rooted and complete. His journey from reluctant accomplice to courageous hero is handled well throughout the first chapter of this trilogy.

His stand-out performance is most evident during film's centrepiece scene when Bilbo stumbles across Smeagol (Andy Serkis) and must outwit him in a game of riddles to save his own life and find his way out of the mountains.

Visually, An Unexpected Journey is, if it's at all possible, even more striking than the original LOTR films. Sweeping landscape shots of snow-laden mountains, rolling plains and rich woodland leap from the screen and leave the audience scrabbling to pick up their jaws from the floor. From the homely hills of the Shire to the fiery finale, the vibrant colours and textures add great authenticity to the world of Middle-Earth.

Jackson has filled out the short source material with additional sub-plots that explore the emergence of the Necromancer, an evil from beyond the world of the living. Whilst it may not appear to fit in directly with Thorin and co.'s quest to reclaim their homeland, Jackson has taken great care in crafting a side-story that will no doubt be unveiled and related back with the coming instalments. Whilst Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown falls a little flat when providing some silly 'comic relief', the scenes that contain the entire White Council (Cate Blanchett's Galadriel, Hugo Weaving's Elrond and Christopher Lee's Saruman) are some the best in the entire film.

One of the my main concerns going in was that it wouldn't feel like there would be enough story to go around  or that the story would drag. On the contrary, the pacing is spot on and the long running time didn't feel at all stretched.

Andy Serkis as Smeagol/Gollum
Unfortunately, with such a large ensemble cast, it is inevitable that some of the characters fade into the background. With Thorin's band of dwarves, it feels as though only Balin (Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Kili (Aidan Turner) feature heavily enough to leave an impression by the time the credits roll. This is inevitable when such a large cast are compressed into a nearly a three hour film; hopefully, some of the others will feature more in coming instalments.

Another thing that An Unexpected Journey did well was the introduction of Azog the Pale Orc as a primary antagonist and rival for Thorin. With Smaug's introduction postponed to the second instalment, the first film needed a strong antagonist to oppose our heroes and Azog fills that void well.

Lastly, the opening prologue in which key narrative devices were introduced such as Erebor, Dale, the Arkenstone and Thranduil was a great way of setting up the saga. The flashbacks to the Dwarven city at it's height was interesting for it was an aspect of Middle-Earth yet to be touched upon in film.

On the whole then, An Unexpected Journey is without a doubt a triumphant return to Middle-Earth for Peter Jackson and everyone involved. It doesn't feel forced or unnecessary. Instead, it feels more fun, light-hearted and witty than LOTR, whilst being equally as striking visually. The bar then is set high for Parts 2 and 3 due December 2013 and July 2014.

I give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: 7.5/10 

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