A lot of people have been worrying about The Hobbit – all three parts of it. How will they successfully split one short book across three epic films? Have any of the new characters been miscast? What will be the effect of 48 frames per second, aka HFR? And will the magic of The Lord of the Rings be reinforced, or tarnished? Well, one thing is for sure; An Unexpected Journey is no Fellowship of the Ring.
The film begins with storytelling and flashbacks; the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is about to turn one hundred and eleven. He is chronicling the story of his youthful exploits for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). As he delves into his memory, we are witness to the fall of the great Dwarf kingdom of Erebor, which was attacked and conquered by the dragon Smaug. The Dwarves build a new home in the Blue Mountains under the guidance of their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), but long to return to their true home and reclaim their lost gold, as well as a prized Dwarfish heirloom called the Arkenstone. One day, young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) discovered a grizzled wizard and a bunch of Dwarves on his doorstep, at which point he was reluctantly roped into the quest to reclaim their mountain.
Martin Freeman has been expertly cast as the young version of Bilbo. He is very much a character actor, often playing reluctant and bumbling unlikely heroes, and as Bilbo this works in his favour; he is a great mix of nervous grumbling and charming pluckiness. Ian McKellen does an admirable job of reprising his role as Gandalf the Grey, the slightly cheekier and more disobedient pre-Balrog version of the powerful wizard.
However, the two performances that really make you sit up and take notice come from Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis. Armitage makes for a brooding and vengeful Thorin Oakenshield; he is essentially The Hobbit’s answer to Aragorn son of Arathorn (Viggo Mortenson), and it looks as though he isn’t going to disappoint. Serkis is his old slimy rasping self as Gollum, and really nails it in the famous ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene, playing opposite a wonderfully jumpy Freeman.
Peter Jackson’s adaptation reflects the fact that (unlike LOTR) The Hobbit was written primarily for children. The film is lighter and funnier, it moves faster, and it makes you laugh louder. The film does have its dark moments, for sure, but they are more chilling than sinister, more tender than emotional. Like LOTR, Unexpected Journey creates a feeling of genuine excitement in the viewer, but in a different way; there is less fear of defeat, and more hunger for victory.
The representation of Dwarves and Dwarfish culture will make or break The Hobbit trilogy. There were hardly any Dwarves at all in LOTR, unless you count the dead ones mouldering away in the Mines of Moria, and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) was turned almost exclusively into the comic relief. Seeing as the story of The Hobbit is very Dwarf-heavy, that isn’t an option here. So far, the filmmakers have hit a good balance with the Dwarfish Company; funny characters mix with surly ones, old with young, and friendly with warlike. Let’s hope the balance can be sustained for the next two films.
And as for HFR/48 FPS? Well, there’s no doubt that it looks like nothing you’ll have ever seen on the big screen before. If you’ve bought into HD already, you might be a little less thrown by it – for the rest of us, it takes about twenty minutes to get used to the look of the film. At first, everything seems ‘too real’, as though you are actually watching it take place in front of your eyes, with no screen, no camera and certainly no 3D glasses between you and the action. ‘Before you grow accustomed to this,’ wrote Peter Bradshaw for the Guardian, ‘it feels as if there has been a terrible mistake in the projection room, and they are showing us the video location report from the DVD “making of” featurette, rather than the actual film.’
For the most part, the film looks realer than real. So real in fact, that that it goes right around in a circle and, in a weird way, doesn’t look real at all. It’s going to take our old-timey eyes a little while to get used to this new devilry. Overall, An Unexpected Journey was exactly what we were expecting, and yet nothing like what we thought it would be – a rip-roaring fantasy adventure it certainly is, but with two more films to come, it still remains to be seen whether the story can be stretched that far.
Best Performance: Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Best Line: “I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage.”