The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Film Review)

In response to the producers who thought there was enough material to turn Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire into two films not one, director Mike Newell simply stated that while there was certainly enough incident to create two volumes there was not enough story. That to me has been the final word on using two films to tell one story. Breaking Dawn, Kill Bill and yes, even Deathly Hallows would have been greatly improved by slicing the fat off and keeping the narrative clean in one lean instalment.

So how does a film whose source material stands with a page count of less than the individual books that make up its 1000+ page long sequel (books which at most had only four hours in which to cram its excessive narrative), justify covering its paltry by comparison story in three times the amount it took to tell stories with double the plot? Quite well actually as it goes.

The key to justifying the length of your film isn’t just in the story itself but the way you tell it. And the storytelling in The Hobbit is exemplary. Jackson already proved himself to be a better story teller than Tolkien in The Lord Of The Rings by removing all the ponderous appreciation of foliage and concentrating more on the characters, dialogue and action. But the element that raised LOTR above all the other literary adaptations and franchise blockbusters was the writers ability to see depths of emotion and conflict where others, even Tolkien himself, saw only shallow pools.

In the aftermath of the LOTR films Jackson became notorious among purists for changing situations and characters. One of the most prominent examples of this was altering Faramir’s motivation. In the book he is strong willed enough to refuse the stewardship of the ring and let Frodo go about his dangerous quest. In the film he desires the ring for himself believing it to be the saviour of his city and people, and remands Frodo in his custody. In doing so Jackson retains the power of the ring as an object of terror and strengthens the central theme of power corrupting the hearts of men.

In The Hobbit Jackson digs deeper into the lore of Middle Earth for just such reasons. He becomes almost like an architect uncovering hidden gems of detail and nuance. He finds dialogue that hints towards hidden incentive and suspicion, lines that in the mind of the reader (and perhaps even the author) are simply throwaway. But in the hands of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens they are the foundations of peril, drama and open up entire chasms worth of characterisation that Tolkien would have dropped in favour of an interesting kind of leaf.

The prime example of this is Thorin Okenshield. In the book he is after nothing more than selfish revenge and a pot of gold. In the film his desire’s reach is widened to a home for his people, his fathers killer and a better burglar than Bilbo, because Bilbo wants nothing more than to return to his bed and mothers cutlery. All these elements become the driving force of the film, the last providing this movies central relationship and character arc.

And if you think that’s overkill for the first third of The Hobbit, think again. Exemplary storytelling remember? The action zips along with an exhilarating pace, from one scene to the next it provides a white knuckle rollercoaster of thrilling action and breath taking awe. No one can film a vista like Jackson, no one can give you such an epic sense of scale, the way he juxtaposes his tiny companions with the sprawling expanses gives his film a sense of journey that no other can compete with.

Yes the film has its issues, it takes forever to get out of the Shire, Radagast is hilarious but unnecessary and apparently no one is as enamoured with Goblin Town like I was. More over though it simply doesn’t have the sense of gravitas as the original trilogy had. But I’m not sure it was ever supposed to. The Hobbit was always a book for a younger audience than LOTR, more of a fairy tale book than epic fantasy. Its heavier on the musicality, it has a lighter tone and plays more for laughs. This is why I believe the comparisons to the previous three films are unfair.

Aesthetically yes, I do not remember watching LOTR and thinking so quickly that that was a wig on Frodo’s head, or that Bilbo’s feet never moved when he walked, or that the tone of skin on the dwarves ears and noses was of such a different complexion to the skin on the rest of their bodies. Perhaps this is the result of the new filming techniques that Jackson has chosen The Hobbit to be the testing ground for. Whatever the reason when it matters you don’t notice it. Jackson keeps such a tight grip on the drama you’re mind never wanders far enough from the action for it to start finding other things to occupy it. Besides which it’s a fantasy film, if I can still watch Ridley Scott’s Legend without looking at the way Tim Curry’s horns wobble I can sure as hell watch this.

One area that has certainly matches the original is the performances. Martin Freeman joins the ranks of Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen as one of the key Middle Earth Players; Robert Chipman of The Escapist said “Martin Freeman has over 154,232 facial expressions – all designed to convey the feeling: “Seriously?””. I couldn’t have put it better myself, never has an actor displayed so much variety when asked to express such a small range.

As ever though the show stopper is Andy Serkis. Once again brining to life the great cinematic character of Gollum one of the most conflicted and erratic creatures in all of literature, his interactions with Bilbo are so good you can only think of how the other two films will suffer without his participation in them. His ability to go from one extreme to another, to contort his face from grin to grimace to frown is not the result of computer generated trickery. It is a deeply human performance of a tragic creature. And if this is to be his epitaph, there could not have been a finer scene in which to perform it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is by no means a perfect film, its pacing is uneven, certain sections drag on for way too long and many of them could be omitted entirely. But when the tale is this well told, when you see the world open up before you like a pop-up book come to life, you forgive the flaws. You forgive them and what they give to you in return is a good time. And when the time is this good, who cares that it’s almost three hours long?