Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

 

With anticipation mounting every passing month, week, even hour, a film with a title like The Hobbit can only be laden with the weightiest of hype. Given that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings made its mark on cinema as nothing less than a stone cold classic, his long expected return to Middle-Earth makes it likely the most awaited film in over a decade. So, nine years later, how does Jackson’s return venture compare with his award winning trilogy? In a broad sense, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is something of a homecoming: it is both very familiar, yet finds new treasures to mine. Though it occasionally meanders, when it regains its footing, Peter Jackson’s adventurous tale rekindles much of the grandeur and scale that made his original trilogy so vital and immersive.

It must be said upfront that The Hobbit as a narrative is fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings so comparisons in tone and execution must be examined with this prerequisite understanding. The Lord of the Rings is a true epic quest, with fate of the world hanging in the balance, whereas The Hobbit, as is oft noted in the dialogue, is an adventure, which allows for fun and danger, but the stakes are considerably minimized. Where in The Lord of the Rings there is a constant threat of the Ring being discovered, and Frodo’s character arc resulting from the burden of his journey, his uncle Bilbo’s development in The Hobbit is much more about proving his worth given his unlikely fittings with the rest of his company. As such, though they share similar qualities and structural components, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit should not inherently be held to the same narrative standard.

The thrust of the story begins sixty years before the trilogy, when Bilbo Baggins (a perfectly cast Martin Freeman) plays unwitting host to a collection of thirteen dwarves, who are on a desperate mission to reclaim their home, the kingdom of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain. Exhausting him to no end, the dwarves quickly make a mess out of Bilbo’s home, which makes it peculiar that they would want him to join their adventure. Believing that a small, stealthy burglar is exactly what their company requires, Gandalf the Grey (a most welcome Ian McKellan) tries his hardest to recruit Bilbo, but the hobbit remains adamant that he has no interest in adventures, thank you very much. Of course, he is egged on and reluctantly follows the dwarves into the wild. Along the road, they encounter much danger and mischief, from three hungry trolls, to a goblin king, and plenty of orcs and wargs in between. They navigate welcome locales like Rivendell and newer dangers, such as the inner goblin tunnels of the Misty Mountains. There are certainly deja vu beats to the narrative, much as in The Fellowship of the Ring but the dynamic of the company is different, as is the tone. More than ever, Jackson exploits the lighter side of the film, from the raucous tom foolery in Bag End, to the edgy danger of the half witted trolls.

Though An Unexpected Journey is often a fun and rewarding film, its first half isn’t quite as breathlessly propulsive, due to a large amount of exposition. From a prologue within a prologue where the elder Bilbo chronicles the malevolent dragon Smaug’s conquering of the dwarven kingdom Erebor, to another flashback for the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), there are some fits and starts to the narrative. It structurally resembles The Fellowship of the Ring, where countless introductions and explanations were necessary to pay off in later films. Indeed, it is clear that Jackson is intent on portraying a grander picture than the tale Tolkien wrote, referencing the appendices of The Lord of the Rings in order to hint at a larger, expansive narrative. The inclusions of Radagast the Brown and the White Council, for instance, serve primarily to set up events that will be explored later in the films. Because of this exposition, An Unexpected Journey occasionally stalls, but when the plot finds its legs, the film recalls the same scale and pacing of its predecessors.

Despite these issues in editorial efficiency, Peter Jackson’s directorial instincts have not dulled in the slightest. An Unexpected Journey is further proof that Jackson is not just one of the best action filmmakers working today, but his focus on the smaller, intimate moments only aids in enriching his films. Witness his handling of the maddeningly fun business of introducing all of the dwarves, and then contrasting that havoc with their solemn and haunting song for the Lonely Mountain. Of course, when flexes his action guns, Jackson allows for controlled chaos, in which nothing feels rehearsed, except for the expertly timed camera movements and editing, which comes to complete fruition in a blindingly brilliant chase through the Misty Mountains. There is much inventiveness happening in these thrilling scenes, and Jackson builds his sequences by outdoing himself beat for beat, culminating in a breathless finale. In the end, Jackson’s film adheres to the development of his characters, and Bilbo’s arc here is best realized, blossoming with his encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis), a scene which stands with the finest work in The Lord of the Rings.

Jackson’s collaborators, many of whom were so integral to the success of the trilogy, have returned here and their painstaking work is equally evident. Andrew Lesnie’s photography, though clearly limited to more interior sound stages than location work, is nevertheless remarkable at times. Witness, for instance, a tight space like Bag End, in which Lesnie balances the contracted mis-en-scene and the constant character movement within the frame without ever allowing for confusion. The most prominent distinguishable element to the film is its use of 48 frames per second, twice the rate that almost all films preceding it have done. Much criticism has been leveled at The Hobbit for this format, which has been called weird and distancing. Perhaps it is a matter of personal preference, but I only found that it enhanced the 3D photography immensely, and removed the headache caused by the conventionally dim 3D photography at 24 frames per second. The production design and Weta Workshop’s costumes and makeup are very much on par with the predecessors, and the visual effects from Weta Digital are typically state of the art, especially in Gollum, who has never looked more lifelike than he does in his chilling extended cameo. Howard Shore’s score provided such a powerful identity for Middle Earth a decade ago, and continues to do the same for this tale, softly referencing recognizable tunes, while also supplying new themes for the dwarves, and even Gandalf.

By the time The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrives at its visually stunning conclusion, there is no doubt that a decade away from Tolkein’s mythical land has done much to hamper the return journey. Indeed, though we have been there, and now are back again, it is a most welcome return, despite a few extensive detours. The journey thus far may be somewhat slight in narrative heft, but one suspects that Jackson simply wishes to explore all of Middle Earth in order to fulfill a larger story. As the film’s final shot attests, grander things are yet to come.

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~ by romancinema on December 14, 2012.

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