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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Review by: David Stonehouse
Certificate 12A Out now

It’s hard to imagine a more eagerly anticipated movie than this first installment of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s children’s classic. In fact, speculation has been rife on the subject since The Return of the King closed the original trilogy in 2003. For a long time it looked like it might never happen. The rights to the book were wrapped up in interminable legal wrangling, Jackson had said he wasn’t prepared to take it on and, besides, he was caught up in legal issues of his own. However, the success of Lord of the Rings meant that returning to Middle Earth was too good an opportunity to miss. Rights were finally secured, Jackson and his team were persuaded back and a visionary director, Guillermo del Toro was on board. All looked set fair until yet more legal challenges stalled the project and del Toro, unwilling to wait indefinitely, walked regretfully away. Fans rejoiced as Jackson finally announced that he would return to the director’s chair but tiny shadows of doubt began to creep in with the announcement that The Hobbit would be expanded from two films into a full-blown trilogy. Surely there wasn’t enough material in one little 300 page kid’s book to justify what could be nine hours of film? The more cynical of you might well wonder if it wasn’t all a big fat money grabbing exercise from the greedy studio execs.

Well now it’s here, so we can decide for ourselves. And frankly, if part one smells fishier than Gollum’s lunch there’s no reason why we can’t boycott parts two and three.

We shouldn’t have worried. From the opening moments, Jackson takes us back to the comfort zone. The title design is the same as the Lord of the Rings and the opening bars of Howard Shore’s score place you in Middle Earth as surely as John Williams’ music took you to ‘A galaxy far, far away…’ We start back in Hobbiton on the eve of Bilbo’s leaving party from The Fellowship of the Ring, with Ian Holm’s older Bilbo and Elijah Wood’s Frodo providing the perfect bridge between the two trilogies. From there it’s a step back sixty years to a younger Bilbo on the verge of a big adventure of his own. There’s also an impressive prologue about how the dwarves were driven from their city in the Lonely Mountain by Smaug the Dragon.

As for the criticism that there isn’t enough material to sustain the films this soon proves not to be the case. An Unexpected Journey only adapts the first 100 pages or so of the book but there is a hell of a lot of incident. The accelerated narrative pace of a children’s book allows for trolls, goblins, a visit to the elves of Rivendell and the movies real high-point, Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum in the caves beneath the Goblin city. The storytelling pace is probably best described as leisurely, but no more so than in The Fellowship of the Rings, and when the action comes it comes hard and fast in a series of well judged sequences scattered throughout the movie. Jackson always judged the balance of calm and storm very skilfully and this is no less true here. Jackson has also mined the wealth of additional material left by Tolkien in the Unfinished Tales and the appendices to the Lord of the Rings to make the links between the two stories more explicit. As a result we get to see the White Council at Rivendell where Gandalf raises his fears about the growing evil in the lands with Galadriel and the dubious Saruman. This wider storytelling also provides an unexpected highlight in Radagast the Brown, the eccentric natural wizard played with gleeful sparkle by Sylvester McCoy, whose investigations into magically poisoned animals lead him to be the first to recognise the work of a necromancer and find proof that someone is raising the Nazgul. Radogast also has, it has to be said, by far the coolest transport of any character.

The performances are uniformly excellent. The dwarves were a potential pitfall as Gimli was always the comic relief character in Lord of the Rings. Fortunately this gang are not allowed to become a joke. Twelve distinct characters emerge as the story progresses with Thorin, the dispossessed King without a land providing a brooding melancholy centre to the team. The returning cast step easily into their old shoes with Ian McKellen clearly having a ball in his wizard’s grey robes and Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving are as ethereal as ever as the elves Galadriel and Elrond. However, this is really the story of just one little Hobbit a long way from the comforts of home. Martin Freeman is Jackson’s masterstroke. His Bilbo is a near perfect creation, from his smug self-satisfaction in the comfort of bag-end, his fish out of water feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness amongst the dwarves, to his disbelief at his own self-sacrificing bravery, this is a note-perfect performance from start to finish. As previously mentioned the film’s biggest treat is Bilbo’s battle of wits with Andy Serkis’ Gollum. Serkis’ bravura performance really is something to savour, particularly as Gollum moments are likely to be few and far between from here on in.

In cinematic terms it looks astonishing. Jackson chose to film in both 3D and in experimental 48 frames per second. The 3D is just a matter of taste really. It doesn’t add a great deal to the experience but there are some sequences such as the Goblin city that do benefit from the extra depth. Jackson steers well clear of the more obvious 3D gimmicks and it all looks glorious in 2D as well. There is a step up from the already breath-taking special effects of the original trilogy and the whole thing looks gorgeous although you probably won’t feel the full benefit of the double frame rate unless you see it on a vast scale such as Imax.

As a return to Middle Earth The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a great start. Let’s hope Jackson can maintain it all for another two years. I think we can be reasonably confident – he hasn’t dropped the ball so far.

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