The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth for an altogether different trilogy

This is one film I have been anticipating for a very long time. Since the final film in The Lord of The Rings trilogy ended in fact. The Hobbit is also one of my favourite books which I read and loved at about 11 years old, so as you can imagine, I had a lot to expect from the first film in this new trilogy. Originally planned as a series that would be helmed by Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson later took the reins – a safe pair of hands to leave this project in seeing as how he obviously had previous experience of bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories to life. But with so much to live up to, is this new start to an altogether different trilogy any good?

A prequel to the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the story of Bilbo Baggins (older Bilbo played in LOTR and briefly here in a prologue by Ian Holm, young Bilbo now played by Martin Freeman) and a certain journey he embarked on when he was younger. 60 years before the events in The Lord of the Rings took place, the young Bilbo was very different from the daring, energetic hobbit he became; happy to live at home in peace and quiet for most of his life. But one day his reverie is interrupted by a strange wizard called Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) who is looking around the Shire for a hobbit that would like to come on an adventure. Bilbo is distraught by the mere thought of this; adventures make you late for dinner after all. But the next night an even more unexpected guest arrives. And then another. And another. Until Bilbo’s house is filled with 13 hungry dwarves, as well as Gandalf. They are going on a quest to reclaim their land that was stolen by a terrifying dragon called Smaug. And the dwarves need someone small to act as their burglar. Enter Bilbo. After much persuasion Bilbo decides to join them (not really a spoiler as if he didn’t the film would only be half an hour long), but will he regret his decision after he starts to witness what horrifying things lie ahead?

The Hobbit is an altogether different beast from The Lord of the Rings. Rather than an epic tale about war and evil that has overtaken an entire land, it is a children’s story solely about a quest and is filled with action and adventure, with a little bit of danger thrown in at times too. While director Peter Jackson has managed to reflect this perfectly throughout the film, creating a fun, action-packed story about the thrilling journey, he has also managed to make something that fits in with the feel of the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy. Additions to the story have made it darker, like LOTR was, with more at stake than in the book (more on that later), which ensures this film will appeal to both fans of the book and fans who adored the films as well. Another huge achievement with regards to the story and script, written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, is that they have managed to make the events in the first part of the book into a well-rounded story that could to all intents and purposes be its own stand-alone film. And enough focus is given on the right characters to make their journey (their literal one and also their own internal journey) seem interesting and compelling enough to watch throughout.

One of the things that I loved about the LOTR trilogy so much was the perfect casting for certain characters. And again they have managed to do that here. Martin Freeman makes for an excellent young Bilbo Baggins. He is ideal for providing much-needed comic relief throughout, but he can also play serious when he needs to as the nervous hobbit who is out of his depth. The 13 dwarves, who have all been expertly designed costume wise so they can be told apart, are brilliant as well, but there are only a couple that stand out from the crowd here. Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner are great as the two youngest dwarf brothers in the group Fili and Kili, and are the most memorable of the group as they get the most action scenes and things to do (and they’re also my favourites, not that I’m biased or anything. *Ahem*). Graham McTavish as Dwalin, Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur all get their moments as well, in particular Ken Stott as the patriarchal figure of the group. A few of the other dwarves get a couple of comedic moments to take part in (Adam Brown as Ori and Stephen Hunter as Bombur), but some of the others don’t get their time to shine yet – hopefully they will in the next films. But it is really Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield who gets the most screen time and focus as their serious leader. He also has the most interesting backstory as the King who is trying to reclaim their rightful land and who has a past filled with war and fighting.

However with the addition of this amazing new cast, let’s not forget the returning cast who are reprising their previous roles. The ever amazing Ian McKellen who is also on their quest hasn’t lost any of his charm since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While he might look significantly older he still has that ever-present twinkle in his eye as Gandalf. Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee return as well and again are all brilliant. But it is a certain Andy Serkis as Gollum who gives the most astounding turn from the returning cast. He again makes Gollum both funny and terrifying at the same time. And the motion-capture has been significantly improved since last time, meaning Gollum looks even more eerily lifelike than ever before.

While the action, design, cast and script are all things to shout about, there are also a few very specific sequences I am inexorably happy about. The scene with the trolls is one of my absolute favourites in any book. I remember reading it for the first time and being completely hooked on what was going to happen. And here Peter Jackson has superbly managed to capture the scene, making it humorous and terrifying at the same time. The other scene, without giving too much away, is the Goblin King under the mountain. Again not only is it perfectly realised from the book, it actually surpasses this with the use of design and action. The look of the goblins and their land is incredible and so realistic and the action sequence for this part is expertly choreographed and thrilling to watch.

That all being said let’s get down to the elephant (or Oliphant – sorry, awful joke) in the room… This film is incredibly long. There are moments in which the action stops and the pace slows down…and you start to feel ever so slightly bored. For me most of these moments are parts that have been added to the story and that were not in the book. The inclusion of Radagast the Brown Wizard. The talk between Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). The pale Orc who fought the dwarf King Thorin (Richard Armitage) all those years ago and is now seeking revenge. I understand why certain aspects have been added; for instance the pale orc has been used to include more of a backstory for Thorin, and to give a more satisfying conclusion to this first film. The scene of Galadriel and Saruman I even slightly understand – they’re not in the book but fans would obviously be gratified by seeing their presence, so I can’t berate Jackson for that. But Radagast the Brown? When he is first introduced we leave the storyline of the quest to briefly be shown his story, a confusing idea that feels too jarring alongside the actual (and more interesting) narrative. While I’m sure that he is there because this will somehow connect to the story in the next two films, at the moment it seems like an odd inclusion and one that really slows down the plot. But we’ll see – prove me wrong Jackson.

And now to the really big elephant in the room: does the book warrant three films being made? I for one would like to say that we can’t judge at this stage. If it’s being made into three films then I trust that Jackson, Walsh, Boyens and del Toro have written it so it works as three complete stories and so that it ties into the LOTR trilogy (unless the last one is just the characters all sitting around and having a pint). I can say at this point anyway that this first film in the trilogy has an interesting enough climax that will make you desperate to see what happens in the next two films, especially the second one. And I for one am incredibly excited to see how exactly Smaug the dragon has been designed, especially using motion-capture technology (and who will be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He gets a credit as the Necromancer in this first film even though he is only onscreen for about 2 seconds, but essentially he is playing the part of ‘Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film’ in this first one).

Peter Jackson has managed to capture the same spirit that was present in The Lord of the Rings films creating another fun, entertaining start to a new trilogy with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Although it is somewhat long in parts, there is always another piece of action around the corner ready to pick up the pace again. The cast are all brilliant especially the returning actors, and in particular new additions Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage, and the design is beautiful with New Zealand again being used to great effect as an almost real Middle-Earth. The conclusion will also make you eager to see the second film, but with a year to wait you’ll need to be patient to see Bilbo and his band of dwarves again.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on January 29, 2013.

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