Review: The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey / Cert: 12A / Director: Peter Jackson / Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro / Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter / Release Date: December 13th
What may have been an unexpected journey for Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, some of us have been anticipating for a very long time. They couldn't leave Peter Jackson's phenomenally successful trilogy untouched, surely? Not when J.R.R. Tolkien already had the prequel ready and waiting.
It may have taken almost ten years and whole lot of speculation and wonder, but Jackson has finally returned to that well for a second trilogy of Middle-earth movies. Freeman is the young Bilbo Baggins, dragged from his comfortable fireside complacency into a world of danger, fear, goblins and a Gollum. When Gandalf the Grey (a role Sir Ian McKellen slips back into like an old slipper) comes knocking at his door one fine morning (a matter of some contention with the wizard) poor Bilbo's world is turned upside down. No sooner has he turned the wizard away than Bilbo is visited by thirteen Dwarves and the threat of adventure.
Gandalf and his Dwarves are tremendously condescending to Bilbo, given the mighty task they're asking him to undertake (break into a mountain to battle a dragon) but he's a game sort of chap, especially given his predilection for the quiet life. Led by Dwarf royalty Thorin Oakenshield (a noble but slightly ridiculous Richard Armitage) Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves undertake a quest into the darker depths of Middle-earth from which none of them are guaranteed to return. Note that we said darker there, and not darkest. Compared to the trek at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, this seems like a doddle – like nipping to the shops for a pint of milk. The film's tone reflects that – the Middle-earth of The Hobbit is a cheerier, more colourful place to live, its inhabitants more fun to be around. Remember how Gimli was the most fun character in The Lord of the Rings? Well, the Dwarves in The Hobbit are like thirteen little Gimlis – each one a joy to watch. All are infused with character and an instantly recognisable look (even from a distance). It's admirable that the film effectively has fifteen main characters but never feels crowded or as though it's wasting any of them. Most notable of the Dwarves are James Nesbitt (surprisingly not annoying), Aiden Turner (the hunky dwarf) and Ken Stott (buried beneath heaps of make-up, but still very recognisable). Martin Freeman does a good job as Bilbo, even if he can't help but slip into his 'Tim from The Office' face every now and then. And then obviously, Sir Ian and Andy Serkis steal every scene in which they appear.
There's some competition there, though. There's a cameo from Christopher Lee's Saruman, Sylvester McCoy as hippy wizard Radagast the Brown, and Dame Edna Everage herself, Barry Humphries as The Great Goblin. There's no shortage of gruesome and grisly looking creatures in The Hobbit, all thanks to some very inventive character design work. And, with a stunningly crisp picture and very real 3D, those monsters literally seem to leap out from the screen at you. Unlike most 3D films, The Hobbit has a good story at its heart and a world that would feel immersive even without the gimmick. And then there's the little matter of the frame rate. Shot at 48fps for a faster, clearer look, The Hobbit looks mostly incredible. There are times when it causes the CGI to look that little bit more unreal, the environments more artificial – but overall, it works. This Middle-earth, before the rot of Sauron and Saruman set in, is supposed to look magical and somewhat unreal. The image has been softened and diffused too, for that Fairy Tale look. The Bilbo vs Gollum 'Riddles in the Dark' scene feels every bit as iconic as it should. There's much debate to be had regarding the use of higher frame rates, but Peter Jackson has proven himself an artist capable of using the tool to great effect.
Inevitably, condensing a smaller book like The Hobbit into a nine-hour trilogy leads to some narrative problems. An Unexpected Journey feels somewhat incomplete and unsatisfying – as though the story isn't epic enough to justify its length. Still, there is some emotional heft towards the end, a nice character arc for Bilbo, and some truly awesome action sequences. Aside from a talkier bit in the middle, the film barely stops for breath – hitting its stride with the Goblin mountain and Gollum's riddles. Ultimately, it's a good old-fashioned man-on-a-mission movie, only with Dwarves and Orcs instead of commandos and Nazis.
Granted, Bilbo Baggins' Unexpected Journey may not have been an entirely vital one, but we're glad he's undertaken it anyway, for old times' sake.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10