mon 22/09/2014

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey | Film reviews, news & interviews

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson's misconceived film turns a much-loved classic into a reluctant epic

Born to play Baggins: Martin Freeman in 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit has always been the answer to those who rail at the self-consciously epic scale and bombast of The Lord of the Rings; it is the perfect Tolkien primer, an introduction to Middle Earth that is humorous and boisterous, doesn’t take its heroes too seriously, moves along at a good clip and is no less a glorious adventure for its levity.

It is also a modest single volume. How ironic, then, that director Peter Jackson should take that very lightness away from it, ignore the fact that it was written for children, and impose his own grandiose design. The hubris is mind-boggling.

Not content with the nine hours of his Lord of the Rings trilogy (which succeeded, despite its self-indulgence) Jackson has now decided that he needs another three films to tell The Hobbit; more than that, this initial instalment is just shy of three hours – surely enough in itself to adapt the whole, but no, merely covering six chapters. And so the tale of Bilbo Baggins has become a baggy affair indeed.

The novel concerns the adventures of the sedate and initially reticent hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman, pictured), enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to aid a group of dwarves to recover their stolen gold from the dragon Smaug, who destroyed and now occupies their home in the Lonely Mountain. En route they encounter elves, goblins, trolls, wolves, eagles and men, some friend, some foe, and Bilbo’s ingenuity and increasing pluck frequently spare the blushes of his comically inept employers.

More than enough there. But Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have decided to join the dots between Bilbo’s adventure and that of his cousin Frodo 60 years later in The Lord of the Rings, using Tolkien’s appendices to the trilogy.

Thus An Unexpected Journey features a great many unexpected storylines, with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles as the older Bilbo and the young Frodo, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett theirs as white wizard Saruman and the elf Galadriel. There are also legions of orcs. Now orcs do not feature in the book at all, and the presence here of these terrifying creatures ensures that Jackson’s departure from his source is not just one of length, but of tone; this is no longer a story for children, unless their parents want them to have nightmares.

The super-crisp image is strikingly real, so much so that it feels strange in the cinema

The filmmakers make yet another modulation: whereas Tolkien’s dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are greedy little blighters who just want their gold back, and only discover their true mettle at the end of the book, here they are immediately heroic warriors whose quest is to regain their home from the dragon. For the most part, we are denied the comedy of their foibles and mishaps, another example of the book’s great sweetness being denuded.

Much has been made of the director’s decision to shoot in 3D and, in particular, at 48 frames a second, twice the usual speed. And this too seems a misstep. The super-crisp image is strikingly real, so much so that it feels strange in the cinema; when accompanied by moribund pacing and a ponderously twee soundtrack, the overall effect is of watching TV, immersion denying us fantasy and the role of our imaginations.

The film has its moments: story-telling and special effects hit their marks in the scenes involving the trolls (including one who disgustingly mistakes Bilbo for his handkerchief) and the stone giants; Freeman, an Everyman with impeccable comic timing, was born to play Bilbo, and McKellen’s Gandalf is as mighty and mischievous as ever.

The film’s best sequence involves Bilbo’s meeting with the scheming and sinister Gollum, again played brilliantly by Andy Serkis. Their game of riddles, Gollum’s prize if he wins being to eat the hobbit, is wonderfully acted and suspenseful. As ever, Gollum steals the show.

Nevertheless, The Hobbit seems hugely misconceived, with our having to wait two more films, and two more years for its conclusion. Bilbo calls his memoirs There and Back Again. Do we really want to buy a return ticket?

This is no longer a story for children, unless their parents want them to have nightmares

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2

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