It’s here! After a nine year hiatus in director Peter Jackson’s continuing cinematic visualization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epics chronicling the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), starring Ian McKellen and Martin Freeman has eventually arrived. The big question is was it worth the wait?
Life is good for Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) in his well-appointed hole in the ground. He is content living in the Shire where he happily lets the world pass him by, bothering no one and no one bothering him. At least that is until the mysterious wizard Gandalf (McKellen) appears on his doorstep with a group of boisterous dwarfs, bound on a quest to reclaim their ancient kingdom within the distant Misty Mountains and a golden treasure of unimaginable wealth, which was stolen from them years before by the dragon Smaug and a legion of evil Orcs. Coerced into accompanying the band on their quest, Bilbo begins a journey which will not only change his life forever, but also have far-reaching consequences for the land of Middle-earth and all those who dwell there.
A film based around a story held in such high esteem by generations of devoted fans, was always going to have impossible expectations to live up to. Jackson’s vision in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may not be to everyone’s taste, however taking the apparently insurmountable odds into account the result isn’t bad.
Some would say you can’t go far wrong when the basis for your film is considered to be amongst the greatest works of 20th century fantasy fiction. The question here is not the story but how it’s brought to life on the screen – a task Jackson accomplishes with an air of realistic believability, at least once the action leaves the Shire. The land of the Hobbits is the film’s Achilles’ heel, as it was with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, looking more like some Disneyesque fun-park, than the sleepy valley Tolkien described in his books. Reality sets in when Gandalf and his troupe leave Bilbo’s home of Bag End behind and take to the open road. Here Jackson makes good use of New Zealand’s wildly varying landscape from open grassy plains to snowcapped mountain ranges, which provide a suitably rugged backdrop against which the action plays out. This – combined with the more fantastical environs of the Elfin homeland Rivendale, the marvelously envisaged forest lair of the wizard Radagast the Brown, and a frighteningly realistic mountain pass on which takes place one of the film’s tensest episodes – brings life to a story encompassing every possible environ from homely to awe-inspiring.
Characterization was always central to Tolkien’s tales – The Hobbit was as much a telling of Bilbo’s voyage of self discovery as of his adventures in the farther reaches of Middle-earth. McKellen, it goes without saying, steals the show as the tetchy Gandalf, whilst Freeman captures perfectly Bilbo’s frustration and bewilderment as he is drawn reluctantly into a frightening adventure with a band of delinquent dwarfs. These said dwarfs however are one of the film’s biggest disappointments as none of them are particularly memorable. Apparently the popular British thespians Ken Stott and James Nesbitt are included amongst the roguish band, but you’ll be hard put to figure out which are which as the dwarfs seem to take on a single, mass persona by the end.
Some of those who stand out most however, are in fact not in the book at all. Though Kate Blanchett may only be seen briefly in the film as the elfin queen Galadriel, she makes more impact in her short appearance than many of the book’s original characters who take up twice the screen-time.
The areas of most contention amongst critics appear to have been the film’s use of 3D and the new form of shooting at a higher rate of 48 frames a second (twice the norm), as well as its running time. The pioneering frame rate is intended to compensate for problems such as headaches which many people find when watching films in 3D, and as such seems to work. Unlike with so many modern films where 3D is used simply for ‘shock effect’, here it adds body to simple scenes (like those set in Bilbo’s home) and depth to those on a grander scale (as with the ones that take place on the grey passes of the Misty Mountains).
A duration of two hours fifty minutes, though not uncommon today, may seem off-putting. Strangely however, though you’re conscious of the film’s length it doesn’t feel like it drags. As with all great storytellers Tolkien never hurried his narrative, often taking several pages to describe what a more timid writer may have sped through in a paragraph. Jackson clearly follows this route as, though the film could easily be split into only a few clear segments, he approaches each part with a steady, measured pace.
Like all films on this scale the real problem is that there is too much to take in. With blockbusters constantly attempting to outdo each-other in scope, budget and technical wizardry, they are fast becoming their own worst enemies. Similar to visiting a museum, there is only so much that the human eye can digest before switching to overdrive with everything it sees becoming a blur. That’s not saying that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t an impressive experience, but in reality its impact quickly dissipates once you leave the movie theatre.
It’s difficult to give a full analysis of a film which is clearly only a small part of a longer narrative. Audiences will have to wait a year and a half until the other two installments are released and the story concludes, to appreciate the full effect. As it stands however The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, though not classic, is in itself an enjoyable piece of cinematic whimsy. Whether or not Jackson is justified in stringing Tolkien’s tale out for so long, we’ll have to wait and see.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey went on general release on the 13th of December, 2012.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
Read also: Diarmuid Corkery, “9 Day Hobbit: An Exploration of Cinematic Time”.