The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Some “event” movies nurse expectation more than others, and The Hobbit has been near the top of the pack in that regard. As a result, this review is, in part, a response to negative hype that left me feeling underwhelmed and cynical. It wasn’t just the loss of Guillermo Del Toro and the prospect of the return of a director who’d claimed he had enough of Middle Earth (and whose efforts since leaving it had been patchy at best). Or the commerce vs art choice to expand two films into a trilogy. Or the baffling decision to test the waters of 48 frames per second cinema with a huge blockbuster that surely ought to fit seamlessly with what had gone before (or would go after). It was the sight of trailers for the film that left me thinking it might be the equivalent of the Star Wars prequels in moving from a tangible, physical universe into a virtually rendered, plasticky nightmare. The opposite of what Jackson had so lovingly achieved first time around. Had he become George Lucas?
While some of my fears were confirmed (a unnecessarily bloated length, an excess of CGI), others appeared unfounded (in 2D, 24 fps, it looks absolutely fine, and the visual ambience is sufficiently of a piece with the first trilogy), and the pervading spirit and tone of Peter Jackson’s earlier films survive intact. Additionally, I expect some of my misgivings will be watered down by perennial home viewings, as An Unexpected Journey has the overpowering odour of a director who isn’t even trying to manage the material, but rather has his eye on its (extended edition) shelf life.
The prologues do indeed go on and on, and it takes an age for Bilbo to actually set out on his journey, but they still held my attention. The effect is something akin to settling into a comfy chair, but it needs to be your favourite comfy chair to really appreciate the experience. Even the unending Bag End dwarf fest, complete with not one but two songs, proved engaging. I didn’t have huge problems distinguishing between the dwarves either (but why James Nesbitt dwarf and Aidan Turner dwarf seem – relatively – prosthetic free escaped me).
I was more conscious of narrative fumbling at the point where we switch, with hardly a trudge across hill and vale in-between, from a why-Thorin-doesn’t-like-Orcs flashback to the antics of Radagast the Brown (cued, clumsily, by Gandalf talking about his fellow wizard). At this stage, it seemed all that was necessary to digress to an apparently random character was for a member of the company to mention their name.
That aside, the structure hearkens back to The Fellowship of the Ring, essentially an episodic travelogue, which is both nostalgic (for a film only 11 years old!) and ensures natural narrative progression. At times Jackson appeared to be joining the dots a tad too diligently (the Rivendell sequence) or musical and visual cues feel overly referential, but that’s to be expected in a series that has as its cornerstone the comforts of home.
The only major misstep is the extended sequence where the dwarves are captured by goblins. In terms of setting it recalls Fellowship’s Mines of Moria, but in every respect (other than Bilbo’s, and the book’s most famous, plot thread) it is vastly inferior. This is not only due to the overpowering predominance of CGI characters but also because the extended action is so hyperactively physics-defying and lacking in any real sense of peril; the viewer is left feeling uninvolved. Barry Humphries' vocal performance as the Goblin King is good fun but the visually the character, complete with testicular goiter, is distractingly unreal. And, whilst the Riddles in the Dark section is well-realised, for most of the time I couldn’t make out the content of Gollum’s riddles/responses (possibly a failing of the cinema’s sound system, but maybe down to Andy Serkis’ dentures).
The returning actors appear as if a day hasn’t passed, thanks to the nips and tucks both physical and computer-aided. A couple of them (Ian Holm and Cate Blanchett in particular) end up looking even younger than in Fellowship, although thankfully the result is far and away superior to the ham-fisted de-aging of McKellen and Patrick Stewart in X-Men: The Last Stand. A few of the cameos are unnecessarily Lucas-ian (Galadriel, Frodo, Saruman). Indeed, Saruman’s presence is somewhat distracting as it makes it all a little too “Senator Palpatine”. It’s nice to see Christopher Lee again, though. McKellen and Serkis make the most of their defining roles, the former so imbuing the spirit of the stories that it feels unnecessary to make him spoon-feed the audience a line-for-line reminder of what it’s all about.
Of the additional cast, Martin Freeman is very winning but seems to veer from an approximation of Ian Holm RP to his own (Watson) delivery. Richard Armitage has rightly been labeled the Aragorn of this trilogy although he’ll never have the same heartthrob longevity, buried under prosthetics and a protruding fake nose. Of the other dwarves, Nesbitt makes the biggest impression.
As for Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), whom one early review compared to Jar Jar Binks, he is mostly fine. As expected, he blows it when he raises his voice and makes doom-laded pronouncements but there’s no one alive better suited to saying words that end in a rolled “r”. And his resuscitation techniques for poorly hedgehogs are very cute.
The end of the film, and the glimpse of Smaug, is enticing enough to ensure attendance of the next installment (like there was ever any doubt), but it is in no way as compelling as the climax to Fellowship. And there’s an issue, I feel, with featuring an all CGI recurring villain such as Azog. Don’t get me wrong, he’s well rendered (and was presumably played by Manu Bennett wearing a motion capture suit), but Thorin’s stakes with him never feel as personal as they should due to the virtual divide between them.