“My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures. Well, I can honestly say I’ve told you the truth, I may not have told you all of it.”
DIRECTOR: Peter JACKSON
STARRING: Martin FREEMAN, Ian MCKELLEN, Richard ARMITAGE, Ken STOTT, Andy SERKIS
“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
The iconic line spoken by Cate Blanchett’s Lady Galadriel to Frodo Baggins in Fellowship of the Ring would prove an iconic moment as the heroic hobbit would go on to save Middle-Earth by destroying the One Ring (with a little help from some friends!). When the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy climaxed with the incredible Return of the King in December 2003, we thought we’d seen the last of the great fantasy world as well as hobbits, wizards and dwarves. However that has all changed with dedicated director Peter Jackson making the bold decision to return to Middle-Earth by adapting the prequel to the series, The Hobbit. But rather than making just one precursor to the successful trilogy, he has decided to split that story into three films (yes just like Star Wars….) which has led to mixed opinions. Whilst the original trilogy was about Frodo and his dangerous adventures, this new trio of films focuses on the other important hobbit of Middle-Earth, his uncle Bilbo. It is the first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, where the Baggins’s heroic legacy was about to begin….
Set years before the Lord of the Rings story, a young Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is approached by the wise wizard Gandalf (McKellen) about taking part in an adventure. Despite his fears of leaving the Shire, he reluctantly agrees to accompany an army of dwarves led by Thorin (Armitage) as they look to try and reclaim their home which was attacked by the fearsome dragon Smaug. Their quest sees them encounter various foes including three fearsome trolls as well as armies of orcs and goblins but they also find solitude at the Elvish home of Rivendell which allows them to rest before continuing the journey. But as they face more danger, Bilbo finds himself encountering the gangly creature Gollum (Serkis) whose bizarre fascination with a ‘precious’ object could have major consequences for the fate of Middle-Earth.
After the breathtaking Lord of the Rings trilogy was finished almost a decade ago, audiences knew that with The Hobbit being made, it wasn’t expected to be as big in proportions. But while that book may be shorter and simpler, Jackson’s decision to split the narrative into three films looks to have paid off especially for those eager fans who want to explore the origins of Middle-Earth. Anyone who felt these films wouldn’t be as exhilarating will be very surprised to see that through Jackson’s well-crafted prequel opener, the plot feels a lot more grander to watch on the big-screen. While the narrative may share similarities to the Fellowship of the Ring and lacks thrills of the sublime trio, An Unexpected Journey is essentially a lightweight film with only a handful of really developed characters and a lack of a major villain while also adding a little bit of humour and wit. But this all becomes necessary as we know the two sequels will change in terms of mood and tone. It also enables us to embrace the immaculately detailed background of several characters from the original stories. Those who were astounded by the epic trilogy from 2001 to 2003 will welcome their return to Middle-Earth as the wonder and magic is recreated with immaculate detail. The stunning New Zealand location shots have always stood out amongst the acclaim the films received and again, more of the country’s beauty is presented and allows us to explore these new places. Seeing the humble backdrop of the Shire and the majestic Rivendell again is a nostalgic sight for fans who are instantly reminded about why Jackson and his production team were wizards of their own art. The addition of new surroundings such as the land of the Dwarves and the Goblin lair are presented with prestige detail that may look familiar to Lord of the Rings but the work to Middle-Earth is as refreshing as ever. Richard Taylor is back to his committed best in the make-up and visual effects department as he works hard on both pieces of work to ensure the film stands out amongst the other colourful productions of this year. While there are less battle scenes in this instalment, we still savour the thrills of seeing hundreds of CGI-created orcs and goblins as well as the return of the Warg Riders (from The Two Towers) which allow the action to flow in a pacy structure and is further enhanced by the stunning Stone Giants action sequence. But as with the recreation of Gollum, the CGI is also used to great effect on the likes of veteran actors Ian Holm (elder Bilbo) and 90 year old Christopher Lee (Saruman) as they are made to look younger by the crisp visual detail. Howard Shore’s return to the franchise is also welcoming as he relies on the familiar compositions from the original trilogy but also adds a new triumphant score in the shape of the memorable ‘Song of the Lonely Mountain’. As with Lord of the Rings, Jackson’s decision to use mostly non-Hollywood cast members proves assuring as Martin Freeman shines in his biggest role yet as the bumbling yet heroic hobbit who mixes together the humour of his breakthrough appearance in the UK version of The Office with the action skills of his Watson character in Sherlock. Ian McKellen is as authoritative and playful as ever in his reprisal of Gandalf while Richard Armitage conveys leadership and determination in his role as Thorin. Though the other Dwarves don’t gain as much character arc as the original Fellowship did, the stand-out performers like Ken Stott and James Nesbitt have fun in what is new ground for the two veteran TV actors late in their careers. As with McKellen, it is also refreshing to see the return of original actors Elijah Wood (Frodo), Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving (Elrond) and the angelic Cate Blanchett (still as mesmerising as ever in the role of Lady Galadriel) even if only for short appearances. We should also not forget Andy Serkis in his iconic portrayal of Gollum as his ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene with Bilbo is the centre-point of the film as the stand-off between good and (eventual) evil takes place in a menacing game of riddles.
As most critics have stated in their reviews, it is clear that Jackson’s decision to shoot the film in 48 fps makes it look undefined and a little too colourful. When you first watch An Unexpected Journey, you get the early impression that some of the visuals don’t look right even if the CGI is top-notch again. The best case comes from the Radagast segment which not only is an uninteresting sub-plot that slows the film down but also makes it look cartoonish for the running rabbits and doesn’t look right for a production that is meant to be amongst the very best in cinema. Another piece of unusual visuality is for the Goblin King whose bulging chin is very similar to a certain private part of the male body!
VERDICT: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey revives the beauty of Middle-Earth in this entertaining opener to the prequel trilogy which is flawed by its underwhelming use of 48 fps but remains impressive through its nostalgia and new surroundings. Another journey has just begun….