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Should I Watch..? The Hobbt: An Unexpected Journey
What's the big deal?
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fantasy adventure movie released in 2012 and is the first film in director Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy. It is a prequel to Jackson's earlier trilogy The Lord Of The Rings and the film details how Bilbo Baggins first discovered the One Ring on a quest with a band of Dwarves attempting to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug. The film stars Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt and Lee Pace while series regulars Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood return to their previous roles. All three films in The Hobbit trilogy were produced back-to-back as Jackson had done before and this first film grossed just over $1 billion worldwide, making it the second most successful Middle-Earth film after The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King (1). Unlike the earlier films, however, this film was met with a more mixed response from critics.
What's it about?
Approaching his 111th birthday, an elderly Bilbo Baggins begins writing the story of his earlier adventures for his nephew Frodo. It begins by explaining that many years before Bilbo's involvement, the Dwarf king Thrór ruled peacefully from his kingdom beneath the Lonely Mountain until the fiery dragon Smaug destroyed much of the underground city and claimed the vast treasure contained within for himself. Thorin, grandson of Thrór, witnesses the survivors fleeing for their lives and an Elven army who do not intervene, which results in Thorin's hatred for Elvenkind.
Fast forward to the Shire and a much younger Bilbo Baggins becomes the unwitting host to a small band of Dwarves who invade his tidy home and generally make themselves a bit of a nuisance. With the wizard Gandalf involved, Thorin declares that he intends to led the group on a quest to recapture the Lonely Mountain with Bilbo brought along as a handy burglar, at Gandalf's request. Initially reluctant to join them, Bilbo decides to tag along and soon finds himself completely out of his depth with Orc hunting parties, hungry trolls, murderous goblins and a far more malevolent presence making the journey far from smooth.
Young Bilbo Baggins
Gandalf The Grey
Radagast The Brown
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro *
Release Date (UK)
13th December, 2012
Academy Award Nominations
Best Makeup, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design
What's to like?
Having seen and fallen in love with Middle-Earth during the first three films, I was delighted to be back in some familiar places. The Shire is still a rural idyll you'd want to retire to and my heart always skips a beat when I see people running through the stunning landscape of New Zealand. It is an impossibly pretty film to watch and has an even broader spectrum of locations to dazzle us with from the magnificent glory of the Dwarven city beneath the Lonely Mountain to the nightmarish zig-zag of boardwalks and rope bridges that make up Goblin Town. Jackson has figured out how to get the best shot out of the material and does it in almost every frame.
Fans of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy will be delighted to see the likes of McKellen, Weaving and Serkis back in the mix (Gollum actually looks better than ever) but the new cast members also provide plenty to savour. Freeman is delightfully quirky as the bewildered hobbit thrust into the most unlikely of circumstances while Armitage manages to replicate the noble leadership of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn as Thorin. Nesbitt brings some comic relief in the absence of Merry & Pippin while there are also remarkable cameos from the likes of Barry Humphries as the Goblin king and the late Christopher Lee as Saruman, the orchestral score underlining the character's later fate with ominous tones. Like the earlier trilogy, it's a film with every care and attention taken to every frame and it looks the business.
- All three Hobbit movies were shot with a projection frame rate of 48 per second as opposed to the industry standard 24 per second. Critics noticed that despite the smoother viewing experience, some viewers experienced headaches while others complained that it made the effects look worse. Most cinemas actually stuck to showing the film at 24 frames per second as normal.
- Gollum's appearance was one of the first sequences shot for the movie, to allow Freeman to get used to playing Bilbo. Once filming was complete for that scene, Serkis stayed on and worked as a Second Unit Director
- Dwalin uses two axes in battle. It was McTavish's idea to name them Grasper and Keeper after Emily Bronte's dogs. The names can be seen carved onto the axes in Dwarven runes.
What's not to like?
There are moments, and I admit that I'm being picky here, where the CG doesn't look as good as it should - the flowing water channels at Rivendell, for example or the bloated form of the Goblin King who simply isn't as realistic or believable as Gollum. There is also a sense of using CG for CG's sake as the camera zooms and flies around the action as though it were being filmed by a housefly. Jackson started doing this during the final battle scenes in Return Of The King and I didn't like it then either because all it does is make it harder to follow the action, even if it does look very clever.
Worse still, there are several other things as well. The story has so much filler in it that it has the dual effect of never really telling much of a story as well as slowing the film's pace to dangerously boring levels. Having read the book beforehand, I seriously doubted that three films could be wrung from the material and nothing I've seen here has changed my mind. McCoy's appearance as nature-loving Radagast is also seriously off-putting, distracting from the actual story being told and confusing the viewer with his rabbit-pulled sledge. He didn't seem to serve much purpose other than introducing the subplot of the mysterious necromancer which isn't really mentioned again. More filler, basically.
The reason why I never saw these films at the cinema - I got every one of The Lord Of The Rings on the big screen, it became a Christmas tradition - was that I couldn't get over the feeling that it was only made for monetary reasons. I still maintain that the book could have been made in less than three long movies and the protracted negotiations behind the scenes about its production didn't fill me with much confidence either. People who will watch this will have loved the Lord Of The Rings films as I did and this, frankly, doesn't feel up to scratch. Harsh but considering the expectations, it does feel like a bit of a disappointment.
Should I watch it?
I have been assured that this particular trilogy does improve but it's a similar experience that audiences got when Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (2) was released. It has the dual issue of both starting a whole new trilogy as well as trying to match the stratospheric expectations of rabid fans. It is not a bad film - far from it as it is simply magnificent to watch a director's vision come to life so brilliantly. What it is, sadly, is underwhelming although I do intend to stick with the series. Middle-Earth is still Middle-Earth, after all...
Great For: Tolkien nuts, fantasy film fans, lovers of The Lord Of The Rings film series
Not So Great For: toilet breaks, anyone put off by fantasy films, girls expecting to see Orlando Bloom (he's not in this one)
What else should I watch?
After this, the series would have two more films. The Desolation Of Smaug (3) was more welcome with most critics agreeing that it put the series back on track and it went on to become nearly as successful as this. The conclusion to the series, The Battle Of The Five Armies (4), brought the series to a noisy and bloody conclusion with most agreeing it was a fitting end to the trilogy.
The trouble is, almost everyone loved Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. From the bright and colourful introduction to Middle-Earth with The Fellowship Of The Ring (5), the series set new standards for fantasy films and movies in general. The CG work on Gollum is still some of the best ever seen while Elijah Wood's tortured hero still has you fearing for his safety at all times. The Two Towers (6) was a touch too dark for some but it's actually my favourite of the three with a split narrative and blistering action scenes capped by the stunning Battle Of Helm's Deep. The Return Of The King brought the series to a wonderful finish, although I felt it a bit heavy on the CG trickery I mentioned above. But this is all academic because all of these films are so far and away the greatest fantasy films ever made that picking a favourite is like ordering ice-cream - you're going to enjoy whatever you get.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox