And we’re back. Back to Middle-earth. And I cannot wait to go back again! The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is everything I could’ve hoped for; a grand adventure full of myth, magic, whimsy and dwarves. Lots of dwarves. Yet despite the long runtime, it all flew by in a breeze.
This Tolkien classic is lighter and more humorous than its sequel The Lord of the Rings and begins with prissy hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman; Sherlock) being swept along on a fantastical quest by everyone’s favourite wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). You see, Bilbo is to accompany 13 dwarves on their quest to retake their ancient dwarven kingdom, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug. These dwarves have a stern leader in Thorin (Richard Armitage; Captain America: The First Avenger), who will do anything to reclaim his homeland. Thorin doubts Bilbo’s usefulness in this endeavour however, something which Bilbo himself agrees with.
As An Unexpected Journey is merely Part 1 of a trilogy-in-making, its main thematic arc is Bilbo finding his courage and earning Thorin’s acceptance. This works well and provides a good stopping point for the film, which is otherwise comprised of an episodic series of fantasy sequences. These include a famous encounter with three trolls, a daring escape from Goblin Town and various bouts with the menacing Pale Orc, Azog the Defiler (a character created by Tolkien but who wasn’t present in the novel of The Hobbit – he’s been added here to give the film a central antagonist). Andy Serkis (The Adventures of Tintin) also returns in a bravura performance as the creature Gollum (Serkis also worked as second unit director). The game of riddles he has with Bilbo is a masterful, enthralling sequence that easily tops all of Gollum’s previous appearances in The Lord of the Rings.
Of course, director Peter Jackson has fiddled with the source material a tad in adapting it for the big screen, but by and large this is about as faithful an adaptation as a fan could hope for. The extended opening dinner at Bag End might be a bit slow for some but it’s a terrific recreation of the scenes from the novel – and necessary for setting up the story at large. Additional scenes which have been pulled from Tolkien’s appendices also help to flesh out the plot – notably the inclusion of the Necromancer story thread, which admittedly doesn’t go very far in this movie but is nonetheless mysterious and intriguing, and will no doubt be developed further in next year’s sequel The Desolation of Smaug.
A note about adapting novels for film: I’m sick and tired of people saying The Hobbit has been unnecessarily stretched into three movies (for corporate greed or whatever other fanciful reason). Also, just because a novel is shorter than another novel doesn’t mean it requires a shorter adaptation. Let’s take a hypothetical example: imagine two books, one is 100 pages and the other is 300 pages. Both have exactly the same characters and plot. That said, the 100 page version is written for a younger audience with events occurring at a brisk pace whereas the 300 page version is very dense, focussing on descriptions and the fleshing out of details. Although the latter is three times the size of the former both books could result in the same film adaptation. The point here is that the length of a novel can be a misleading indicator as to the length of its movie. Sceptics beware; Jackson and his team are completely justified in ‘stretching’ The Hobbit (and Tolkien’s appendices) into three epic movies.
Howard Shore once again does the soundtrack, which reuses many familiar themes but also introduces a bunch a great new ones that fit right in. Meanwhile, Jackson relies on a compelling mix of practical effects and CGI – and damn does the CGI look good! It’s a little more prominent here than in past films but it’s not overwhelming and so loses none of its potency. Finally, if you have the option and you’re feeling appropriately adventurous I absolutely recommend seeing The Hobbit in the high frame rate format. For those who don’t know, movies are normally shot at 24 frames per second but Jackson opted to shoot The Hobbit in 48 (only select cinemas are capable of displaying it in 48 fps). The result is outstanding – there’s an immediately noticeable increase in clarity and brightness, with a significant boost to the 3D effect too. It might take a few minutes to get used to (it can appear sped up at first because our brains are used to seeing 24 fps, though this phenomenon is merely a trick of the mind) but this is most definitely the way of the future. And what a future it is! With two more of these movies to go, this Unexpected Journey into Tolkien’s Middle-earth is one that shouldn’t be missed.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a triumphant return to Middle-earth. Put your mind at ease – Peter Jackson hasn’t done a George Lucas.