It’s hard to believe that’s it’s been 11 years since Peter Jackson released The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on the masses in 2001. There were much trepidation from Tolkien fans that Jackson (who had been known mostly for low-budget splatter horror-comedies) wouldn’t be able to handle the monumental task of adapting what many consider the greatest novel ever written in the 20th century. Tolkien’s epic fantasy became the standard by which fnatasy epics would be compared to for decades to come and still do. To say that Jackson succeeded in this epic task would be an understatement. The Lord of the Rings trilogy would hoard awards from 2001 to 2003 and also box-office receipts to make any dwarf-lord green with envy.
It’s now 2012 and we finally have the release of Jackson’s next trip into Middle-Earth as he adapts another of Tolkien’s beloved novels. This time he tackles The Hobbit which for some Tolkien fans remains their favorite of the author’s works. It’s a novel that might not have the epic scope and breadth of The Lord of the Rings, but what it lacks in that department it more than makes up in being a fun, adventure tale of a curious hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey and a fellowship of twelve dwarfs led by one Thorin Oakenshield of Erebor.
The Hobbit was originally written as a children’s book, but in later years Tolkien would retcon some parts of the novel to better fit with his magnum opus in The Lord of the Rings.It’s this revised version of that children’s story that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro would adapt for the big-screen. Initially a two-film set that would tell the story of Bilbo and his merry band of adventurers, but it has since been expanded to become a trilogy as Jackson and his writers take a page out of Tolkien’s bag of tricks and try to tie-in this latest trilogy to the Lord of the Rings which precedes it by a over a decade.
The first film in this new trilogy is called The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and we begin by returning to sometime before the beginning of the first trilogy’s first film. We see the aged Bilbo reminiscing of his adventures 60 years hence and deciding to put it to pen and paper as a sort of memoir of that adventure to reclaim the lost dwarf-hold of Erebor. It’s in this opening that we get to see Frodo once more (played once again by Elijah Wood who doesn’t seem to have aged) prior to him taking up the One Ring.
Bilbo recounts to Frodo the realm of Erebor deep inside the Lonely Mountain east of the Shire to Frodo and how it’s wealth in silver, mithril, gold and precious gems became well-known throughout Middle-Earth. Yet, as Bilbo warns, it’s the very sickness of avarice by Erebor’s Thror the King which seals the dwarf-hold’s doom. We learn that hoards of wealth does more than light up the dwarf king’s eyes with greed but also brings the attention of one of the very last dragon’s in Middle-Earth. The arrival of Smaug to Erebor signals the death of not just that dwarf realm, but the surrounding human town of Dale. The surviving dwarfs of Erebor flee in a massive diaspora towards any safe haven willing to take them in. What was once a proud and powerful realm has now been sundered and it’s afterwards that we get to the meat of the film’s story.
Martin Freeman as a younger Bilbo Baggins was more than just great casting but one which the film needed if one was to believe that this young Bilbo would grow old to be the Ian Holm one fans of the first trilogy have come to know well. His performance as Bilbo Baggins of Bag End becomes the anchor from which the rest of the company would revolve around. When we first meet Freeman as Bilbo he’s not the adventurer that he would become, but a hobbit that’s respectable and one not for doing anything foolish like going on adventures. Yet, his lot in life changes as Gandalf maneuvers the situation so that he becomes embroiled in the quest by Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage) to retake his ancestral lands of Erebor and it’s massive wealth from Smaug who has taken it for his lair.
While many would think that a film called The Hobbit would focus on Bilbo I thought the way the film unfolded that this story was all about the dwarfs with extra focus on the single-minded Thorin who comes off initially as both condescending, superior and dismissive of poor old Bilbo. The film never fails to show how much Thorin thinks so less of Bilbo yet throughout the film’s two and a half and more running time we see cracks in Thorin’s ice-cold demeanor towards the young hobbit. By film’s end we see just how wrong Thorin has been of Bilbo’s worth and it makes for one of the film’s more emotional scenes when Thorin realizes this as well.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not just about a brooding dwarf prince and his motley band of dwarfs getting into one trouble after the next once they’ve left the Shire with Bilbo. The film also brings on a parallel storyline which tries to lay down the foundation that would tie this new trilogy with the first one. It’s the storyline of the Great Necromancer that Gandalf and a fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown, suspect might be the Great Enemy returned. We learn soon enough during the White Council in Rivendell (attended by Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White) that this so-called Necromancer might be Sauron looking to regain his former strength and gather an army to him.
It’s this second storyline that get’s sandwiched within the Thorin Oakenshield Fellowship quest that comes off a bit awkward in the film’s overall narrative flow. Where the film is all about fun adventuring and camaraderie when the dwarfs and Bilbo are on the screen, when they’re not and the film tries to tell us about Sauron’s eventual return the film slows down. These scenes are not uninteresting. On it’s own these sequences bring back the epic tone of the original trilogy and brings it into this film, but it’s that very grandiose theme that seems out of place in what is simply a “men on a mission” story.
Fortunately, we don’t spend too much time dwelling on this side-story. The final third of the film is all about Thorin and company needing to escape from one goblin lair and orc ambush to another. The last 45 minutes or so flies back swiftly after a very uneven first two hours that would make more than a few theater-goers look at their watch. The wait is worth it as we see that Jackson hasn’t forgotten how to choreograph and stage fantasy action scenes. While the use of CGI might be more evident this time around than the previous three films they’re still small compared to other blockbuster films of it’s type. It’s still all about WETA practical effects, make-up and costumes that combine to create a world that’s become familiar yet still have a sense of newness to them as we see new areas of Middle-Earth only mentioned in brief passing in the original trilogy.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a wonderful return to the world of Middle-Earth. It is not without it’s missteps and flaws, but it also gets saved by some great performances from the ensemble cast which makes up the dwarfs. The aerial shots of the New Zealand’s eclectic geography shows just how much cinematographer Andrew Lesnie has become such a major component of making Middle-Earth come alive. Even the return of Howard Shore as the film’s composer was a welcome that brought more than a few smiles.
There’s no way of talking about The Hobbit without bringing up the stylistic gamble Peter Jackson has taken in filming this film and the rest of the trilogy in 48fps instead of the traditional 24fps (frames per second) that filmmakers have been using for almost a hundred years now. It’s an aesthetic choice that gives the film a overly realistic look akin to watching a stage production live. Everything looks too perfect and the High-Frame Rate (HFR) takes away some of the cinematic look which many have grown up seeing every time they watch a film. This new filming style works in certain areas like wide shots of the outdoor scenes. Whether it’s the emerald green rolling hills of the Shire to the snowcapped Alpine peaks of the Misty Mountains, these scenes in HFR came out beautiful. It’s when the film switches over to a much more enclosed and personal space within rooms and halls that we get the unusual “soap opera” look some have complained about. It takes a bit of getting used to, but some make the adjustment quickly enough while others may never make the adjustment.
Yet, it is when the film shows a CGI-created sequence that the HFR fails. While the doubling of the frame rate during filming has made the 3D in the film come off smoothly it did make some of the CG-effects come off as too video game-like. A sequence earlier in the film where we see a flashback of Thorin and the dwarfs of Erebor trying to retake another fallen dwarf hold in Moria (Khazadum in dwarfish) looks like a cinematic cutscene as a dwarf army charges and battles it out with an orc and goblin force which had taken Moria as it’s own.
All the scenes where HFR fails to come off as believable turn out better when The Hobbit was seen in traditional 24fps. I actually think that downscaling the film from it’s original HFR to a more traditional film frame speed of 24fps gave the film an even more magical look than the original trilogy. Jackson and his team of filmmakers have two more films to release and hopefully take some of the criticism this first film has received about HFR that they tweak and work on making the new style much more believable instead of taking the audience out of the film’s narrative.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn’t come off as grandiose as the original trilogy and for some that might come as a disappointment. Yet, as an adventure film it more than does it’s job to fully entertain it’s audience while, at the same, time reminding it’s audience how much this film and this trilogy will lead into The Lord of the Rings. I recommend that people just see the film and decide on their own whether it’s a worthy addition to the Middle-Earth saga as seen through the eyes of Peter Jackson. I, for one, think it is and with two more films left we shall see whether Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth has been a triumphant one or not.