Watch: The Hobbit interviews
Peter Jackson on returning to Middle Earth for An Unexpected Journey
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) joins thirteen dwarves and a wizard (Ian McKellen) on a quest to regain the lost kingdom of Erebor from Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an anxious film. Adjustments have been made throughout apparently with the aim in mind of recollecting elements that worked well in The Lord Of The Rings. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is given an Aragornesque makeover. The most attractive of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner), now boasts archery skills recalling Legolas (Orlando Bloom). The happily piecemeal nature of the company's early adventures in The Hobbit - an encounter with trolls, capture by goblins, pursuit by goblins and wargs - is augmented (or not) by the insertion of an overarching chase subplot headed up by grudge-bearing goblin Azog (Manu Bennett). None of this is seriously detrimental, although you wish the filmmakers had a bit more confidence in what made the nimble, rollicking and usually humble The Hobbit exciting in itself, and spent less time trying to over-cement a family resemblance with the more melancholy grandeur of The Lord Of The Rings.
One area where they seem much less concerned with continuity is the look of the film - specifically, in their adoption of a higher frame rate, giving us 48 frames per second where Rings had 24. The new technique seems an odd choice for a world already so carefully established over hours and hours of the most brilliant and breathtaking visuals in cinema, a world to which millions of people eagerly wanted to return, and to which we might have found it easier to return had it been shot with the same gorgeous storybook look of the Middle Earth we had grown to love.
There's also a troubling lack of continuity in the geography of Middle Earth this time out - where Rings flowed seamlessly from marsh to forest to lowlands to mountains in a way that made sense, you feel in The Hobbit as if you're pinging about all over the map - one minute the company are in bare, grassy uplands, the next, we've fallen down an abrupt secret rabbit hole into the ethereal wooded valley of Rivendell. It's jarring, tonally. Perhaps this sounds a bit pedantic - it's not the sort of thing the fantasy genre used to pay much attention to getting right - but the care taken with these kinds of details in the Rings trilogy was a big part of the incredible suspension of disbelief achieved by those films, and part of the reason they were so much better than any fantasy filmmaking that had come before them.
The less said about the sight of a bird-poo streaked Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) racing throughout the forest in a cart pulled by rabbits, to tend to an ailing hedgehog with a magic crystal, the better. We also hear dwarves threatening to shove weapons up a dragon's "jacksie" and wondering at an elvish meal "have they got any chips?" It's all a bit Terry Pratchett. At the same time, there are periodic attempts to impose a more serious tone on events, creating a beast straining for both seriousness and levity in greater measures than its source, ending up as a bit of a push-me, pull-you.
That all said, there are moments where tone is absolutely nailed, judicious cuts are made and details embellished to great effect. The 'Riddles In The Dark' chapter adds fun visual detail of Gollum despatching a young goblin that is only hinted at in the novel, while cutting some of the riddles exchanged by Gollum and Bilbo, and is all the better cinematically for both decisions. This scene comes alive, and really gives you hope that there still might be some pretty great stuff coming down the tracks in parts two and three.
Decent enough fantasy adventure, but it doesn't especially feel like Tolkien. The mission statement for this film appears to be a line given to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) near the start of the film: "all good stories deserve embellishment." An Unexpected Journey tends to undermine this claim.
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