14 December 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


B-

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2012, 169mins, 12
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer (s): Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Guillermo Del Toro 
Cast includes: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Christopher Lee
UK Release Date: 13th December 2012


“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” lands in theatres after an extensive promotional campaign, combating insatiable fanboy thirst and carrying the weight of the beloved “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy on its shoulders. No pressure then. The movie reunites filmmaker Peter Jackson (last seen helming unfairly neglected passion projects “King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones”) with Middle-Earth, a fantastical world he turned into Box-Office pay dirt and Oscar glory less than 10-years ago. I have an extreme fondness for his initial Tolkien inspired efforts, few films have left  me as visibly awed exiting a screening as 2001’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, and the subsequent efforts whilst marginally less enchanting, were still grand and glorious works of cinematic craft. This time the source is Tolkien’s prelude to his “Rings” trilogy, a much smaller novel published with the aim of entertaining children. It’s a fun read, but concern must be raised that such a slight work has prompted Jackson to undergo another trilogy, financial gain seemingly the only genuine reason to undergo such a bizarre artistic choice. Not only that, but this first installment “An Unexpected Journey” clocks in at a hefty 169 minutes, only slightly shorter than the theatrical cuts of the much fuller “Rings” narratives. The first half of “An Unexpected Journey” is pretty crushing to behold, a poorly paced and repetitively assembled example of franchise film-making, that recycles ideas and aggressively trips over its own technologically ambitious feet. However the second portion of the feature is actually rather wonderful, delivering exquisite action set-pieces, finding a nice storytelling rhythm and embracing the fizzy performances supplied by numerous talented thespians. As a result I’m torn about whether to outright recommend the movie, the quality of the following entries surely a key facet in assessing this one. If they manage to replicate the bombast and efficiency of this picture’s latter stages, the shoddy opening will be a low price to pay. However, if they succumb to the editorial and character identification issues that are evident here, Jackson and willing viewers may be about to embark on a rough road.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is an unassuming and contented Hobbit of the Shire, until Gandalf (Ina McKellen) the wizard encourages him to partake in an adventure. Banding the hobbit up with a bunch of unruly dwarves led by the brooding Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bilbo is informed the company are aiming to recapture the lost Dwarf kingdom of Erebor, from a ruthless and feral dragon known as Smaug. Initially reluctant, Bilbo eventually accepts the nature of the quest and decides to lend his hand. The journey opens his eyes to the wider world, but there are also dangers, such as a vengeful Orc warlord (Manu Bennett) and a shadowy necromancer who has arisen in an obscure corner of Middle-Earth.

“An Unexpected Journey” isn’t as adult as “The Lord of the Rings” features, everything from the diluted violence to the more cartoonish supporting figures suggesting that Jackson has honoured the tonal differences in Tolkien’s works. There are moments during the sword brandishing action in which this choice feels questionable (although an Orc is once again visibly decapitated on screen), but on the whole the decision to opt for a less apocalyptic tone suits the lighter and considerably breezier nature of the tale. Not that such a thing would be evident from the film’s inexcusably bloated runtime. “An Unexpected Journey” could stand to lose a vast chunk of screen-time, especially around the blubbery beginning. Jackson pads the feature’s opening with too much exposition and a lot of failed characterization, his attempts at distinguishing the fringe players in Thorin’s pack of Dwarves ineffective and wasteful. We don’t really get to know or care for any of the characters beyond Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin, despite Jackson’s bloated attempts to achieve otherwise. This issue takes sting out of a few perilous moments (I’m not 100% sure which dwarf Fili even is, much less do I register if he’s in trouble) and could be an infection that ports itself over to future sequels nastily. Jackson would do well to identify some of his supporting cast a little more definitively, much like he did with the sprightly band of warriors that headlined his initial fantasy forays.

Martin Freeman makes for a likable Bilbo, an encouraging sign given his star-billing here. The actor assumes a frumpy but warm exterior, playing the fish out of water angle for both laughs and the odd tear. His rapport with McKellen (stepping comfortably back into the sagely role) is incidentally excellent, cultivating a resonant albeit unlikely friendship that paves quieter moments with subtle touches of emotional depth. Richard Armitage is appropriately commanding and stubborn as Thorin, holding the screen handily against a bunch of clown-like dwarf stereotypes. Certainly little fault can be found with the focal performances, and indeed at the end, where issues of loyalty and home enter the fracas, the calibre of acting is key in helping the film-makers to sell the thematic authenticity of such notions.

The action in the second half is phenomenally engaging, Jackson reassuring audiences he’s lost none of his magic touch when it comes to chase sequences, epic CGI battles and threatening minions. The finale is particular cause for cheer, a delightful mix of tense face-offs and friendship forging bravery. Still despite this, some of the film’s more blockbuster-esque pretensions are scuppered by the distracting and occasionally visually detrimental choice to present the movie in HFR 3D. Speeding up the frame rate wanes some of the majesty offered by sets and digital effects and only jars when compared to the richer, more traditional aesthetic style of the original movies. I’m sure in 2D (which I’d squarely recommend you check out over this HFR version) “An Unexpected Journey” looks stunning and beautifully photographed, but Jackson’s supposedly preferred method of us consuming his work suffers thanks to his new toys. The whole situation recalls an almost George Lucas style of behaviour, and I mean that in no way as a compliment.

I departed “An Unexpected Journey” on a high, but time has mellowed the joyous effect of the movie’s concluding sections. There’s no denying that the first 70 minutes or so are ponderous and dubiously executed, by contrast allowing the crisper and more involving later acts to look sharp by comparison. Fans of Tolkien will enjoy plotting call-backs (Gollum reappears and is every bit the scene-stealer he was in 2002) and musical motifs are repeated, although at time these cute nods can feel a little like coasting. The picture climaxes by exclaiming “the worst is behind us”. I hope this was an intentional reference to this erratic picture’s numbing beginning, and a promise Peter Jackson intends on keeping.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012


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