Or an unexpectedly long journey, as the wags have had it ever since the film premiered back in mid-December. It seems slightly superfluous to post something about a film that’s already been reviewed by everyone in the known universe already, but I come late to the party having been put off going to see it at the cinema after hearing that the slender original book (less than half the length of any one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings) was to be pumped up to a three-film trilogy which seemed outrageously excessive.
One normal-size film should be sufficient, surely, or at a stretch two – but three? And the first of them already clocking in at 169 minutes? Ridiculous. Sure enough, almost all the reviews jumped on the angle that the film was too strung-out, and they criticised how slow the first hour was in particular. My worst fears appeared to be confirmed. But such is my residual fondness for the LOTR trilogy and for its steward Peter Jackson that finally this week I succumbed and went to see the film before it disappears from the local screens. And what I found was genuinely most unexpected indeed.
Maybe it was my lowered expectations after all this time thinking the worst, but I genuinely thought that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a rather magnificent film. True, not quite a match for the LOTR films, but still a film that can stand alongside that landmark fantasy trilogy without any embarrassment (in exactly the way that the Star Wars prequels can’t.) It successfully takes a slim source book intended for a much younger readership than LOTR and is able to marry it to the original trilogy’s serious and epic tone while not losing all the sense of childish fun while doing so (although it does lean substantially more to the former of the two, which will likely annoy Hobbit loyalists.). That said, the film is definitely long – too long – and towards the end I was willing it to draw to a rapid close, which it finally does in the blink of a dragon’s eye.
And yet having said that it needs paring down by a good 30-45 minutes, I’ll be damned if I can actually suggest what could have been cut out to achieve it. The opening hour is the most heavily criticised, but I had no trouble with it – it didn’t drag at all for me, and moreover it serves a variety of crucial functions. The first of these is to link it to the LOTR and pull us back into that world by having Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprise their roles as Old Bilbo and young Frodo Baggins in scenes set literally just minutes before The Fellowship of the Ring. It was like seeing newly discovered deleted scenes from that film and totally worked in casting the old spell over me.
Then there is the matter of introducing a large number of new characters: if you don’t have these early scenes in the Shire then this troupe could never be anything more than a load of interchangeable background scenery. Even with the time spent on them, only a few actually rise above the masses: Thorin Oakenshield (Spooks’ Richard Armitage, sounding oddly like Sean Bean) is the dwarf prince and a thoroughly obnoxious, unlikeable character he is for the majority of this first instalment; Balin (Ken Stott) sparkles as Thorin’s chief advisor and sage of the group, providing much-needed backstory; James Nesbitt brings Bofur to life as the joker of the pack and the only dwarf to really warm to Bilbo; and curiously, Aidan Turner’s Kíli who gets pretty much all the coolest shooting, fighting and stunt moments in the battle scenes, rather like Legolas in LOTR who went from non-entity in the books to almost stealing the film trilogy while making an international star of Orlando Bloom. It’s also noticeable that the former Being Human star is the one member of the dwarves not to have his face covered by grotesque prosthetics, bizarre hats and outrageous beards, marking Kíli out as the pin-up stud-muffin dwarf of the group by far. The only other major new character introduced in the film is the expanded role of eccentric eco-wizard Radagast the Brown (former Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy in the best form I’ve ever seen him.)
Once you identify the need for this first hour being spent on introductions, you can understand why director Peter Jackson soon realised that he also needed to add some big, epic battle scene flashbacks to try and prevent the young fantasy action-and-adventure audience getting restless in the meantime. Once you’ve done all that you genuinely do have a full hour’s worth of material before the quest can get underway, and I felt that all this merited its inclusion and was indeed essential in setting up some crucial back story, such as Thorin’s enmity towards elves and his new-to-the-film feud with pale orc Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) which drives much of the threat in rest of the film. There were some great treats for LOTR fans along the way: having seen the deserted, dead halls of Moria in the first film, it was a true joy to now be able to see the dwarf city of Erebor at its height of splendour, which sets so much context to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
After that slow but important first hour, the company sets off on its quest and broadly follows the trials and tribulations of the book (as far as I can recall: I confess, I remember very little of The Hobbit as it was a school set text in English that I disliked at the time as ‘too childish’ for my 12-year-old self and subsequently blanked from my mind) albeit with expanded Orc menace absent from the book. If there’s anywhere in the film that you could make cuts to reduce the running time then it’s here, as this series of unfortunately wearing events does begin to mount up – especially as Jackson really delivers a truck load of sweeping, zooming camera moves as he throws legions of CGI goblins and orcs into the fray at every opportunity to the point where it just becomes overwhelming and exhausting, and you just want it to calm down. But of course, these are the ‘money shots’ as far as the film’s fans are concerned, and Jackson knows his fan base well enough to not want to risk short-changing them at this stage having got them to sit through the quieter earlier scenes, so in goes the kitchen sink.
Actually, I thought that many of the FX in this film were often not of the same calibre as the original LOTR. Some of the back projection looked noticeably false in a way that I never noticed in the first trilogy; the CGI stunts often didn’t look believable and there was a noticeable lack of physical ‘heft’ to objects that left them looking unreal. It’s unclear to me whether this was a matter of time and money, whether it was an intentional stylistic decision to make things more ‘cartoony’, or whether it’s a side-effect of the technical requirements of shooting for 3D, IMAX and high frame rate distribution all at the same time. (For what it’s worth, I made a point of seeing this in good old 2D and was delighted that I had done so.) Much better was the CGI work on individual major characters, such as the company of trolls that capture the dwarves mid-film and of course the triumphant reprise of Andy Serkis’s motion-captured role as Gollum.
It’s with Gollum and other LOTR--related touches where the film really wins me over. I was never a big Tolkien fan and only read the LOTR books just before seeing the films; and while I loved those films at the time, it’s been years since I last viewed them. As a result I was unprepared for just how powerful the nostalgia for those films would prove to be, and I was continually bowled over by the return of familiar faces and characters from that trilogy starting of course with the peerless Sir Ian McKellen back as Gandalf the Grey. We revisited familiar locales and cities, beginning with the Shire but also returning to Rivendell as well; and just occasionally composer Howard Shore would dip into his LOTR score to allow one of its gloriously familiar motifs to come to the fore, and my heart soared with it.
In many other aspects, The Hobbit echoed many of the themes and plot beats of the LOTR – that’s partly down to Tolkien’s source text of course, since one could argue that the later trilogy was in many ways the author’s attempt to rewrite the child’s volume for a grown-up audience. With the film version of The Hobbit coming after the adaptation of the later books, it leaves this film in the curious position of being both a prequel and a sequel all at the same time, and the curious thing is how well this works: if you watched The Hobbit first then it does a brilliant job of setting up everything that follows in the LOTR; but for audiences coming to this new film having seen the first trilogy a decade ago, it’s a nice touch of nostalgia. A case in point is Gandalf’ recourse to using the giant avian courier service to rescue the dwarves near the film’s climax: it’s set up using the same cinematic language as Jackson used to effect Gandalf’s escape from Isengard in The Fellowship of the Ring, so it’s not an out-of-the-blue deus-ex-machina moment to us because it’s been set up by that prior use. But of course, in the books it’s Gandalf’s escape from Isengard that is pre-figured by the events of The Hobbit, so which now is the portent and which the ‘with one bound, they were free’ cheat? Or does the film series now retroactively accomplish both? It’s a strange sort of time travel causality paradox beloved of time travel movies, and best not thought about too deeply: it’s just wonderfully effective at the end of the day.
Talking about strange wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey oddness beings us to the subject of Martin Freeman, the film’s star. Of course the character of Bilbo Baggins appears in both trilogies and his actions in The Hobbit are pivotal to pretty much everything that happens in LOTR despite his having only a cameo role in the latter. But by every objective measure, Martin Freeman himself is very much one of the new members of the cast, and young Bilbo one of the new characters. So how come just five minutes after he makes his first appearance in the film does it feel like he’s one of the beloved old familiar stars making their return? He fits in so well, and so immediately, that it’s genuinely as if he’s always been there; straight away, it’s hard to think of any cinematic version of Tolkien’s world without him.
You can totally see why Jackson halted production on The Hobbit when a scheduling conflict with the BBC’s Sherlock initially caused Freeman to turn down the role. Once he’d seen Freeman, there really was no one else acceptable for the part – especially as Jackson had already pretty much engineered the first film of The Hobbit trilogy to centre on Bilbo’s personal journey and coming of age story more than it’s a matter of tramping through Middle-Earth and engaging in battles. At least Jackson got a loyalty bonus for sticking with Freeman: casting the Sherlock star led the director to realise that Freeman’s co-star Benedict Cumberbatch would also be a rather spiffing addition to the cast. Although Cumberbatch’s principal role as the voice of the dragon Smaug doesn’t come until the second film in the series, he briefly also provides vocals for the Necromancer in the first.
With so much of the entire film pretty much hinging on the success of the actor playing Bilbo, suffice to say that Freeman’s performance is exemplary and more than up to the task, whether he’s called on to do dry humour, physical slapstick or high drama. He makes the film, and as a result it turns out that the genuine star of the film The Hobbit really is the hairy-footed halfling rather than all the epic Sturm und Drang going on around him. A most unexpected outcome to the journey indeed – and hugely welcome.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is still in cinemas. The official date for the DVD/Blu-ray release is yet to be confirmed but is likely to be around April 17 2013. The next film in the trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug will be released in cinemas during December 2013.