Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I first read Tolkien ― Lord of the Rings first, then The Hobbit ― several decades ago, and it was one of the great turning-points in life of my imagination: an explosion of inspiration.  I approached the Lord of Rings films with a mixture of hope and trepidation, having experienced the less-than-stellar animated version in the 70s, but overall I loved them.  I have some issues with the changes Peter Jackson made with the story, but far more of it worked than didn't.

I'd heard mixed views about the first of The Hobbit films, and the fact it was being stretched out into a trilogy gave me misgivings, but I found myself loving the film.  I saw it in 3D, which I generally enjoy, and it seemed to enhance the experience, without becoming all about the 3D.

It's apparently filmed in a new format, and the technical film buffs argue about whether that works or not.  I know very little about these issues, so all I can say is I didn't notice anything different, good or bad.  It just looked great.

Of course, like its predecessors, the film largely starred the New Zealand landscape, but there was plenty else to enjoy.  Martin Freeman was perfectly cast as Bilbo, approaching his adventures with a dazed determination.  I could completely believe he was dreaming all the time about Bag End, but also that he chose not to turn back.

There were several returns from Lord of the Rings ― some a little out of context ― Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood all picked up as if they'd finished the previous films mere weeks before, and Andy Serkis (or at least his CGI version) made Gollum's one scene unforgettable, as well as doubling as 2nd Unit Director.

Still, much of the film focuses on the dwarves.  I've seen criticism that most of them don't come over sufficiently as individuals, and certainly some of them fade a little into the background, but it would be difficult to avoid that in a group of thirteen characters.  Seven of them have enough to do that they're memorable: Balin, Dwalin, Dori, Bofur, Fili, Kili, and of course Thorin, their king.  As played by Richard Armitage, he's an arresting, complex character, and has enough charisma that it's believable he can persuade the others to follow him, and his relationship with Bilbo was a welcome extra dimension.

The film has considerably more action than the equivalent part of the book.  In fact, very little happens in the book until the party reach the Misty Mountains; but, by making the conflict between dwarves and orcs more personal, Jackson has set up the possibility for chases and fights at more regular intervals, and those in the book ― the fight with the goblins in the mountains and the stand-off when the party take refuge in the tree ― have been turned up to eleven.

On the whole, the additions to the story make sense.  The film starts with the older Bilbo writing his book, in between preparing with Frodo for the Party, morphing into a flashback to Erebor, Dale and the coming of the dragon.  It's a different approach from the book, where we gradually learn with Bilbo how much the quest means to the dwarves, but I think having that up front works better in the context of a film.

As mentioned above, an extra strand has been added between the dwarves and orcs.  This takes the form of the orc-chieftain Azog, who in the book was killed long before, having been maimed by Thorin and being out for revenge.  Azog, portrayed in CGI by Manu Bennett, is a chilling figure and provides a contrast with Barry Humphries' Great Goblin, a gross, disgusting figure.

The biggest strand of additions, though, concern the events leading up to the White Council and its confrontation with Sauron, which here is treated as a parallel plot, rather than as background.  The party's stay at Rivendell is complicated by Saruman and Galadriel's presence and discussions with Gandalf and Elrond about the presence in Dol Guldur, which here is presented as a new development.

The best part of this strand, though, revolves around Radagast the Brown.  Ironically, Radagast's appearance in Lord of the Rings was cut from the films, whereas he's added here where he was only mentioned in passing in the book.  He's splendidly and eccentrically portrayed by Sylvester McCoy, who has the advantage of a character where there's no such thing as being too over the top, but who still manages to balance the insanity perfectly.

Not everything works perfectly.  As in Lord of the Rings, the history behind the story is simplified, and not always for the better.  For instance, the reference to the Witch King of Angmar having been killed and buried makes nonsense of the whole "no living man can kill him" that's so important in The Return of the King.

On the whole, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I look forward to the next two, although I'd still be intrigued to see how they manage to stretch it out into three long films.  Some of what's to be come has been foreshadowed ― glimpses of the halls within the Lonely Mountain and the elven king Thranduil, for instance ― but we still haven't had a good look at Smaug the dragon, who's going to be voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.  I can't wait.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed it too :)

    Some people have stated that the feel of (or voice of) the book was lost more than in LoTR, but I think it would have been hard to keep that intact, given that the Hobbit was a kids' book with a very strong narrative presence. Unless PJ wanted to take the Princess Bride approach and have cut aways with the character of JRR Tolkien telling the story to his kids (which would be a big break from the style viewers who already saw LoTR would expect), I'm not sure there's a way to get that strong author voice across in the movie.

    I do think the escape from the Goblin King's halls reminded me a bit of some of the battles and "dungeons" in the computer game WoW, and aren't really how I imagined their underground realm, but I guess that's artistic license.