Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Bilbo Baggins had his own adventure to be played out across 3 films, long before Frodo had his day. The mountain city of Erebor, home to the most powerful dwarf kingdom led by Thror, is invaded and overtaken the Smaug the dragon, who revels in the riches amassed by the dwarves. Later, Gandalf the Grey coerces a young Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin, Thror's grandson, and his band of dwarves, as they attempt to recruit Bilbo as their burglar in their party in their quest to reclaim Erebor's treasure. The quest takes them through various perils and dangers, encountering numerous foes, but Bilbo alone meets someone with a preoccupation for his "precious"...

It hardly seems like 11 years ago that The Lord of the Rings trilogy began with The Fellowship of the Ring, and ended 9 years ago with The Return of the King. 9 years between now and then, 9 years in which fond memories or hated thoughts have developed of the next generation's trilogy, 9 years in which fans have speculated about how The Hobbit would be brought to life on the big screen. Finally, we reach the second trilogy, however accidental and troublesome it may have been. Guillermo del Toro came and went, Peter Jackson came on board as producer, then writer, then finally director. As if he could ever bare to let his universe rest in the hands of others. Bare in mind, the LOTR trilogy is probably the highest rated trilogy of all time, winning more awards, making more box office dollar, and gaining a more consistent reaction from viewers than any other trilogy ever. Now we return to the same universe, with a different story and different characters... Or do we?

It's hard to tell, because The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey seems an awful lot like a glad-handing, self-aware LOTR reunion instead of a true recreation of The Hobbit as readers worldwide know and love. Now that's not to say that the film doesn't follow the book and introduce these characters as and when Tolkien did, but this film seems to take glee in bringing back all of the original actors in their roles, almost as if it's nudging you, point and giggling, saying "See what we did there? It's him! He's back! It's just like the first trilogy... Remember that? You liked that. You ought to like this to. Like it. Please. We bought them back for you!!!" OK, the film probably isn't trying that hard and saying that much, but I found the introductions of returning characters overwhelming, and by the time they were out of the way and we were finally focusing on the story, it seemed like they were rushing toward the conclusion. They've created enough material that the two films they'd planned became three, I don't understand why so much had to be crammed into part 1.

My point can be explained thusly: The scene with Bilbo and Gollum. It's critical, the chapter everyone remembers, the scene everyone wanted to see, and it felt distinctly rushed. It could have been a fantastic cinematic moment if they had only spent some more time building tension and drama and making it the moment that it had the potential to be. It's a shame, but two films became three late in the game, and in hindsight, maybe some things could have pushed into part 2 so that the conclusion of part 1 could have come sooner with more time given to and scenes added into the existing material. Alas, it is what it is. All of that being said, there's not much else wrong with The Hobbit 1, it stands up well as its own film with a self-contained story whilst leaving other storylines open for 2 and 3, as well it should. The film also looks beautiful... in 2D. I didn't see this in 3D, so I was able to get the full effect of the 48fps in terms of colour saturation and sharpness. There were one or two scenes which went against the grand cinematic feel of the rest of the film and felt more like an indie production which felt quite jarring, but those aside, the film looked fantastic and Jackson can give himself a pat on the back for his bold decision. I will say, a few of the blue screen effects looked exactly like blue screen effects. They did the whole "hobbits and dwarves are smaller than people" thing much better in the original trilogy and we've had boundless technological advances since then, so I don't know why it looked worse than it did 11 years ago. The CGI characters looked fantastic, Gollum was fantastic again, and the New Zealand natural scenery looked amazing... but it's stuff we were first amazed by 11 years ago. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but it's lost its wow factor now.

The acting is superb, especially Richard Armitage as Thorin, an excellent cinematic presence and grabs the attention of the viewer in every scene, even more so than Martin Freeman as Bilbo. It's lovely to see such a strong British presence in the cast, with Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Ian McKellen, Graham McTavish, Sylvester McCoy, and Christopher Lee all making appearances, recurring or not. As much as I previously moaned about the glad-handing returns, it is nice to see all the original actors return as their characters, especially seeing Christopher Lee return as Saruman, even though he's all but retired from film making, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, it's a nerdist dream to see a LOTR/Doctor Who crossover like that, so that was a great call.

Overall, though, as unfair as it is to compare this film to the LOTR trilogy given how well received the first three were and that this is an entirely new story which should be seperate from the first three, the fact is it will be and should be, and this, in my opinion doesn't stand up to the first three visits to Middle Earth. It's a three hour long film, and instead of spending that time available to them telling a full story, they spend far too long reintroducing characters from the original trilogy and not enough time on the story they ought to be telling. I liked the film, but I didn't love it, didn't think it was anything special. I wasn't let down, but I wasn't blown away by it. I'm hoping parts 2 and 3 pick up now the intros are out the way, but this was... Fine. That is the only way to describe this. Fine. Fine is what this film was.

Rating: ***