The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

Should ‘The Hobbit’ have remained in its Hobbit hole?



“The world is not in your books or maps, it’s out there!” as Gandalf says to the reluctant half-ling Bilbo Baggins, whilst pointing out his Hobbit hole window.  In some ways, it’s understandable that director Peter Jackson couldn’t let his signature work of ten years ago be left stand alone, (though as a great pinnacle of fantasy cinema it was), with so much of the Middle-Earth world to explore.  Perhaps those superstitious among you could have labelled it fate that his love affair with the work of British author J.R.R. Tolkien would be rekindled once again. With all the off-screen squabbles, from the early adaptation talks and the prolonged green-lit process, to the introduction of its new cinema technology, and the lack of sheer book pages a trilogy can work with, it’s finally satisfying to see one of the world’s most read novels finally up on the big screen.

Chosen by Gandalf the wizard (played by Sir Ian McKellen), as the final member to join a brave fighting group of dwarves, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is whisked from the warmth and comfort of his Hobbit home to set off on a journey, intending to help reclaim a dwarf city from an all-conquering dragon. But as they venture into unknown territories, they soon come under threat from other nastier and more evil beings from the darker corners of Middle-Earth.

To the more inquisitive of movie-goers, immediate intrigue is to its link with The Lord of the Rings, the trilogy that came with huge success, changed the face of fantasy cinema and effectively put New Zealand film making on the map, and boy are the nods to it’s older sibling here.  Like a perfect jigsaw, little nuances from characters and “certain objects” of great value dot themselves around the film and brilliantly nail the notion of honouring the fans in a subtle way, without being too over the top.  More satisfying and bolder references are saved for as the adventure rolls along, but even the slightest sentence or nod to the camera will all be met well.  It’s as though Jackson is dropping notes in the score, interweaving between the two trilogies and making the arrival of well known faces welcoming as he’s almost easing you back into the characters and the story.  It’s as though he’s well aware audiences will be here for a three film adventure, let’s guide them back into that world again softly.

Martin Freeman is really fantastic as Bilbo Baggins, perfectly cast even. He brings that awkward twitchy edginess to his manner and interactions without even trying, that we as audiences all know and admire him for.  But the real thumbs up is him being able to have a homely sensibility too, wanting his companions to enjoy the home comforts he does.  In fact, one of the heart-felt moments is him convincing fellow-drifting companions that he’s up for the job, simply wanting to help take their home back, and it’s done with real heart and Freeman simply lights up the screen, even in a stellar ensemble cast.

Plaudits too have to go to Andy Serkis, seeing his sneaky creepy Gollum, bringing to life the fantastic Riddles In the Dark chapter of the book is undoubtedly the film’s best scene, as he and Bilbo duel over a selection of riddles, acted out perfectly. Dwelling in the caves of the deep with some of the most elegant motion capture and utterly convincing graphics unlike any character seen before. Still mind-blowing even now at how realistic Gollum’s raise of an eyebrow or a little lip sync is so seamless  even when it’s all done by the click of a mouse.  Richard Armitage is majestic too, as the tough leader Thorin whose demeanor shows the stresses and strains of a character on a mission of vengeance and being troubled by years of pain to his people. Even though there are the single performances, not to mention Sir Ian McKellen, sliding perfectly back into the role as Gandalf, the whole ensemble cast is used to great effect and they do solve the problem of utilising each and every one of the extensive cast list to drive the story along. Even keeping up with the amount of dwarves on show is made easy to follow. Grey wizard Gandalf himself constantly counting them up every so often like a teacher counting pupils on a school trip.

As a stand alone film therefore, it’ll be divided amongst those unaware of the hobbits, wizards and goblins. Treading the thin ice in the danger of falling into a sort of Chronicles of Narnia mentality, being too over designed and indeed being too damn long, time wise, are no doubt plausible worries. But I think Jackson just about gets away with it, he doesn’t ride the crest of a wave in doing so, but he does get away with it.  Moments of gigantic battles of history and sieges taking place in generations-built realms to the untrained do look overly thought out and dare I say, silly.  But as the story plays out, a mindset of the design conjures up the aspect of the film showcasing more of the fantastical world that we simply haven’t seen.  All talk of the over long running time are indeed respectful, however, the film ends in exactly the right place in the book, at a pin point time when characters re-evaluate events and take a breather in a narrative sense.  Whether Jackson has succeeded in fattening out the material to get to that point, is another balanced debate to be had.  Certain sections could have been lost, to save time, especially a moment that involves ‘huge rocks’ shall we say, for me, could have easily been cut and still wouldn’t affect the overall tempo to the film.

In saying that, it’s very much a Peter Jackson film; Rip roaring action sequences drift along smoothly with a highly choreographed sensibility, his lovable affection for gore and twisted ways to dispose of creatures which he’s played out brilliantly throughout his career are all here.  But more importantly, when the emotion needs to be emotional, he definitely times it right.  Jackson’s way of caring and engaging with characters within the fantasy genre, of all genres, is a real testament to his film making abilities. When all is said and done, with all the expectation that has come with it, he’s still provided a highly passable first part take on a very hard-to-film text, with Freeman, Serkis and Armitage the top stars.

Feeling that it concentrates its efforts on setting up the following two films, whilst intending to reference its sister trilogy, is all well and good. But without it standing up and being a powerful cinematic work on its own, it has to make do with being a solidly made opening act to a potentially more powerful trilogy. In essence, leaving you coming out the cinema with the nagging feeling of “I like it, but why couldn’t I have liked it more?”