The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is on wide release! Here’s me own review of it, shamelessly split it into three posts, because there’s just too much material ter do it justice in just one *nods sagely*. This first post is about them good and grand things in the movie!
WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!
If yer haven’t seen the movie yet (or even the Lord of the Rings movies from 10 years back), there are many spoilers here. So this is best suited for folks who have already visited their cinema and had a look at the movie.
Still with me, then? Here we go!
Middle Earth comes alive again
The great thing about Peter Jackson’s original LOTR trilogy is that he made Middle Earth come to life on the big screen. For someone who grew up reading Tolkien’s books every so often, it was a true joy to see so much care lavished on yer favourite stories from childhood. Cinematography, visual effects, sound design, choice of filming locations (New Zealand really works), costumes… it all added up to a completely immersive cinematic experience.
Thankfully, this is also the case with An Unexpected Journey. Once again I found meself drawn into a fantastic representation of Middle Earth, and I didn’t really want ter leave it once the credits rolled. Rather, I wanted ter buy another ticket and stay. That has ter be a good sign.
More hobbit this time!
One of the faults I found with the LOTR movies is that they sidelined the hobbits. The movies were told from the perspective of men, wizards and elves, who allowed them hobbits to tag along on the way. The emphasis put on the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen made them movies center on the rise of men at the cost of elves. That particular storyline is certainly part of the books. However, I found that the two first movies brushed under the carpet the idea that small, hardy and sensible folks from the Shire could have a remarkable impact on the world. Boo.
An Unexpected Journey doesn’t fall into this trap. Although there are some errors on the way, this is very much a movie that puts the hobbit back in Middle Earth. Most of the first hour takes place in the Shire. Bag End is perfectly recreated (I’d love to live there! Especially before them dwarves empty Bilbo’s larder…). Bilbo has a significant and active screen presence even when the adventure gets going. From then on, much of the story is told from the perspective of that homesick, yet oddly curious lad who finds himself on the road, employing good hobbit sense ter deal with the dangers of the world.
Besides, I loved them little hobbity details. Complaints about Sackville-Bagginses? Stories about Bullroarer Took and the battle of Greenfields? That packed larder in Bag End? Just lovely.
Martin Freeman is an excellent Bilbo. He may not have quite the acting credentials of many of his on-screen companions, but he won me over from the start, more than holding his own against the ghost of Ian Holm.
Mostly anxious and self-aware, at least until a soft smile graces his lips, Freeman embraces that fine mix of constant worry and sensible, down-to-earth courage that I love about hobbits. A reluctant hero if there ever was one, he really shines in the final third of the movie, when he encounters…
Was there ever a more pitiful and scary creature yer could find it in yer heart ter sympathize with? Andy Serkis as Gollum more or less stole the LOTR movies with his physical acting and paranoid ramblings. He is back in full force here, ably aided by CGI animators who make Gollum the most realistic animated character yet seen.
The riddle sequence under the Misty Mountains was always a favourite from the books, and it is perfectly executed here, with top-notch acting from both Serkis and Freeman. Freeman’s subdued Bilbo in the watery caves strengthens Serkis’ performance fer me, bringing out the full extent of Gollum’s madness. The final, heartbreaking shots of Gollum realising that he has lost his precious linger still, especially the image of him cursing the “Bagginses” who has just shown him remarkable mercy. This is really the best bit in the movie, and the rest of the series may struggle to produce scenes of a similar quality.
Ian McKellen was a joy as Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring, with bushy beard, grey wrinkled hat and grumbly grouchy manners. Sadly, McKellen seemed to lose a little spark when Gandalf went all white and shiny in the two final LOTR movies, never quite reaching the greatness displayed in the first.
Luckily, Gandalf is grey again in The Hobbit, and McKellen seems ter enjoy himself immensely. Easily shifting between powerful cunning wizard, cranky old curmudgeon and slightly rascally fox (especially in the Rivendell sequence), his eyebrows are quite excellent too!
The added material works somehow
An Unexpected Journey adds a lot of material only hinted at in the book, since them writers incorporate stories detailed in the LOTR appendices. This had me somewhat worried before I saw the movie. I loved that the book was a rather simple, no-nonsense adventure tale, not too significant to the world it took place in (although, I suppose dragons are somewhat powerful…). So when the movie throws in necromancers in Dol Guldur and the return of the dark forces of Mordor, well… not so straightforward a story any more.
Luckily, the new material mostly works. I am not sure the movie needs it, in fact I would love ter have seen the simpler, streamlined adventure of the book instead. That being said, the Dol Guldur scenes are effective, and it is never wrong ter see Lee and Blanchett play Saruman and Galadriel. Bringing in Azog as the central villain is cheating a little, given that it was his son Bolg who eventually showed up in the book, but it also gives the movie momentum and an extra edge.
And isn’t it somewhat hobbity ter signal the return of evil in the world with a coughing, wheezing hedgehog?
The dwarves are dwarvish
The dwarves of the book are grumpy, grouchy, lively, colourful fellers who constantly nag, dream of past glories and send Bilbo off into scary situations since he’s their burglar.
The movie dwarves behave exactly like this. Yay!
Oh,the first dwarven scenes at Bag End borders dangerously close to Discworld and Monty Python territory. However, once them bearded fellers start throwing Bilbo’s best porcelain around, singing of Misty Mountains Cold and outlining the dangers in Bilbo’s contract, everything is good in me book. Standouts among them include James Nesbitt as Bofur (the lively one with the weird hat) and Ken Stott as the white-bearded Balin.
Best of them all, though, is Richard Armitage’s Thorin, who finds a good balance between being a proud and noble dwarven prince and a reckless bundle of rage and anger, whose past near crushes his broad shoulders. If Freeman and McKellen brings heart to the story, Armitage brings much of its soul.
Marvellous music and super soundtracks
Howard Shore is back. Enough said.
Oh, well, OK then. If yer loved the soundtrack of the LOTR movies, you’ll certainly enjoy this one. Many themes from those moves find their way back into The Hobbit, often loud and clear, sometimes more subtly. Best of all, though, is THAT version of Misty Mountains Cold. Yer know, the one from the trailer? With them dwarves singing together in Bag End? Pure movie bliss. The Neil Finn version playing over the end credits isn’t half bad either.
48 frames per second is grand
Much has been written about Jackson’s choice of screening An Unexpected Journey in 48 frames per second, rather than the usual 24 frames. And oh, so many complaints. People get headaches/dizziness/nausea. It looks like a TV movie. It is just too real.
Eh. It looked great ter me. All panning shots were remarkably smooth and judder-free (and there were quite a few of them panning shots – Jackson must surely be a blessing fer the helicopter industry in any country he shoots his movies). This time, it was possible to keep track of things that happened even in busy CGI-animated shots where hundreds of characters were milling around. Crisp, clear and fluid. Lovely.
Summarizing a little
An exciting adventure. A living breathing world. Great acting. I enjoyed meself immensely and was rarely, if ever, bored. It’s bliss for Tolkien fans, this. So it is all good, then, hm?
No. Nay. Never. There are plenty of flaws with the movie, some more glaring than others. That’ll be the subject of me next post, so stay tuned fer that!