Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

When it was announced that Peter Jackson’s troubled realisation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was going to be two movies, I sighed a little. This was a comparatively slim children’s fantasy story, and whilst I enjoyed his The Lord of the Rings films immensely, the (excuse me) bagginess of Return of the King was still very fresh in the mind. Had Jackson learned nothing from his detractors? I assumed immediately that these movies would be long, and lowered expectation accordingly. They would be padded, bloated, overly ponderous.

Then it was announced that it would be a trilogy.

At that exact moment any remaining enthusiasm that I had for the project plummeted. I kept my eyes and ears out of the rumours and reports that were dripping through from websites and magazines. I knew I’d go and see it. Of course I’d go and see it. But really, this was just a yawn-fest waiting to happen.

What also gave me pause was the distinct impression that Jackson and his regular collaborators (Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, along with Guillermo del Toro this time) were openly expanding the story, adding things of their own creation, including new characters. Now, I’m not well-versed in Tolkien. The only book of his I have read is The Hobbit, and that was many, many years ago, and I didn’t even get to the end, so weary was I made by battle manoeuvres in the final stretch. What I do remember, however, is Jackson and co.’s reverence to the source material last time around. What happened to that mentality? What caused this about-face? Was The Hobbit being turned into just another cash-cow? I don’t know why, but I expected more from them. A higher standard. I don’t hold these books sacred, but many others do. Jackson was in danger of sullying a fine reputation.

So I sat down to watch the first of these films unsure of how I felt about it. I hoped that as soon as the inevitable opening narration and info-dump montage got underway that I’d be back under the spell that made The Lord of the Rings such a wonderful yuletide experience a decade ago. But that didn’t really happen, not for a while anyway. The torpor of the first hour is pronounced. As indicated in the film’s trailer, it takes an age for the story to get rolling. Right off the starting line, the film takes a pit stop. The dwarves and their plight pile into Bilbo’s home, along with Gandalf (McKellan is still perfect at this) and, as light and humourous as these character are, they feel too many. Of course, things have to be established, but the urge to yell, “Get on with it!” is high. During this time Jackson and co. even feed Gandalf the line, “Every good story needs embellishment”. A knowing, yet wholly unapologetic nod to us all.

Nevertheless, things do get rolling and Bilbo and the dwarves (sporting enough bad hair for a Spinal Tap concert) venture out on their quest to reclaim the city of Erebor from Smaug the dragon. And as the adventure began unfurling, so my chilliness toward the film thawed. There are problems with this movie (even by the end, the dwarves are nearly all interchangeable; it follows the same plotting of Fellowship of the Ring to the letter, and suffers in comparison) but… but… Jackson is really rather good at this sort of thing now. In the decade since his last visit to Middle Earth, there have been many imitators. Blockbuster fantasy has had the kind of life it never had before, not even in the 80’s. But these pretenders to the throne have all felt middling at best, depressingly derivative at worst (remember that perplexing battle sequence at the end of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland? I’ve tried to forget it too). With The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey Jackson reminds us just how well this kind of thing can be done.

So, though it took some time, most of my doubts were worn away. This film is fun. Sylvester McCoy’s turn as Radagast the Brown is pleasingly barmy, the troll encounter isn’t fumbled as I had expected it to be, and a chase within a goblin mine is given creative dimension thanks to a playful use of swinging bridges. It is also good to see the likes of Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett in their familiar roles during the obligatory stop-off at Rivendell.

And then there’s the return of Gollum in the film’s final third. I fully expected this to feel like indulgent fan service. Instead the ‘riddles in the dark’ sequence is amongst the most simply enjoyable of any episodes we’ve yet seen in Middle Earth; it’s conclusion also cementing Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis as the film’s standouts for performance.

It’s not perfect, it does feel bloated (did we need a warg fight? rock face Transformers?), and structurally the familiarity is almost too much, yet despite these niggles, these complaints… it’s good to be back in Middle Earth. Earlier I used the phrase “yuletide experience”, and that was what I felt mostly fondly as the credits closed in. I was reminded of how it felt a decade ago when going to a packed cinema for one of Peter Jackson’s sprawling creations went hand in hand with Christmas. It’s a wonderful tradition rekindled here. And if nostalgia has influenced my review of this film, I don’t care.

So what if Richard Armitage’s Thorin feels like a particularly low-rent Aragorn? There are pleasures to be had in The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey if, like Bilbo, you’ll relinquish your stuffiness and allow an adventure to overcome you. Go along. Take your kids. And if you don’t have kids, go and be reminded what it was like to be one. There’s childlike wonder here. And what’s more, I have the sneaking suspicion that the best is yet to come.

I’ll be back for more next year.

Score:  3.5

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