It’s probably been about twenty-five or thirty years since I read The Hobbit. My lovely old paperback copy was foolishly loaned to some “friend” and never seen again. The one thing I remember more than individual plot details is the surprising amount of incident in the book, and the way the plot escalates from a very small beginning – “In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit.” – to giant spiders, Smaug the dragon and the Battle of the Five Armies.
Much of the critique made of this movie and its coming sequels has focused on the padding out of a small children’s book into something bigger than is necessary; something that is perhaps too rambling and overlong to convey the essence of the book that The Hobbit originally was. While I understand that criticism, I also understand why Peter Jackson has decided to take the path he has. The Hobbit as it was originally written would be impossible to film unless it were done in total isolation to the Lord of the Rings films, with different actors and a different look and feel. Tolkien returned to The Hobbit a number of times to revise the story to bring it into line with Lord of the Rings, even providing one revision that was rejected by the publisher, because it was no longer recognisable as The Hobbit. I see this film as another revision, but in this case it’s Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens who are revising The Hobbit to bring it into line with their vision of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings films. It’s evident that they are making it a true prequel by showing the rise of Sauron and I wonder if we will see the Battle of Dol Guldur amongst other scenes only written in the appendices of Lord of the Rings by Tolkien.
It’s by no means a perfect film, but I found it to be extremely enjoyable. I had watched Fellowship of the Ring the night before as it had been on TV, and it was interesting to compare the two films – both opening chapters of a cinematic trilogy – with Fellowship doing the opposite of An Unexpected Journey, in that it streamlined a rambling first novel (certainly the first half of the novel which meanders all over the place) into a compelling, pounding narrative that has a tremendous urgency about it from the outset. An Unexpected Journey tries to start in a similar way, with the history of Erebor and the dwarves shown at the outset, and an urgent chase atmosphere is set-up with the pursuing Orcs, but it doesn’t have the same kind of urgency as Fellowship and is languid and meandering in its own way – too many dwarf shenanigans in Bag End and did Radagast the Brown really add anything (time will tell there as it does set up Dol Guldur). Perhaps the premise is too slight in comparison to Lord of the Rings’ epic scope and finely sculpted drama. Can the dwarves really have the same combined effect as the fellowship of Aragorn etc…?
While there is that slower, more fractured pace which may not please everyone expecting another pulse-pounding adventure like Fellowship it does suit the atmosphere of The Hobbit, which was always a more picaresque journey of random meetings and encounters on the road, building towards an ending instead of the more complex, multi-strand narrative of Lord of the Rings. Personally, I just enjoyed being a visitor in that world again. The cinematography is luscious and the New Zealand scenery achingly beautiful and epic, so I felt able to forgive a small amount of meandering. I do hope the next two films are a little more dense with incident, though. I don’t think the entire trilogy can sustain that sort of pace, but it is important to remember that this is not Lord of the Rings and it is supposed to be a different film with a different atmosphere. Not the aura of descending dread that permeates LOTR, but a slightly more optimistic (initially) and less oppressive feeling.
As I watched, memories of the classic scenes from the Hobbit drifted back to me hazily, like the Trolls, the reading of the runes in the moonlight and the fantastically played riddles in the dark sequence with Gollum. Andy Serkis is magnificent once again and Gollum, with the advance in CGI over ten years, is an even more believable and solid creation.
Speaking of CGI, I did feel its overuse in this film. Undoubtedly the technology has improved, but orc faces are CGI-ed here rather than real as they are in the LOTR films, and the goblins are all CGI. This was my personal issue with Jackson’s King Kong. His use of CGI in that film was excessive and just ridiculous at times. I felt the same here when the Dwarves escape from the goblins, running down the wooden gantries and then the drop down hundreds of feet in a very similar manner to a scene in King Kong. It becomes so cartoonish that I never feel as though the characters are in any jeopardy in these scenes. The set-pieces are too elaborate for their own good and just feel too orchestrated. This only serves to make the action feel distanced, like it was in the Brontosaur stampede in King Kong or many other CGI-heavy superhero films. When I think back to the visceral quality of the final Uruk-hai battle in Fellowship, it strikes me that CGI rarely has that quality, except perhaps the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Return of the King which is as much to do with the terrific sound design as anything else.
I don’t want to rant about CGI, but I think the problem is often an issue of CGI-animated characters or creatures having little or no ‘life’ about them, because the animators are trying too hard to make everything so utterly perfect in terms of motion and texture, and that often results in an unnatural motion. Gollum is the exception to such an effect, mainly because he is motion-captured to such a degree that he is essentially a CGI skin for Andy Serkis.
Those reservations aside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a feast for the senses and a pleasant return to Middle Earth. Martin Freeman is great as young Bilbo and I look forward to the next film.
Note: I didn’t watch it in the much-discussed 48FPS version. I did see it in 3D, which does make some of the landscapes really pop and you feel the vertiginous heights of the various mountain-tops keenly, but overall I guess I could have lived without it.