Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

When I first heard that Peter Jackson was splitting The Hobbit into three separate films, I confess I was rather concerned.  The Lord of the Rings stands as one of the greatest movies I've ever seen, being both an artistic and technical masterpiece, and so much work was done on it that Extended Editions of each film were able to be released.  There was a lot of source material for Jackson to draw upon as the depth of story and character showed, however for The Hobbit, the book itself is only a fraction of the size.

This makes three films stretching to a total of about nine hours a rather odd choice, however I decided to place my faith in Jackson as he certainly delivered before, and with each trailer my excitement to return to Middle-earth grew. The first film, entitled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, released last month and on New Years Day I went to see it in IMAX 3D.

I was not disappointed.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is set 60 years prior to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and sees Gandalf (Ian McKellen) enlist a reluctant Bilbo's (Martin Freeman) aid to assist a company of Dwarves who wish to retake the lost kingdom of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain.

Years earlier Erebor grew in spelndor and wealth, and word of the kingdom's riches reached the ears of the dragon Smaug, who attacked and conquered the kingdom and who lies there still.  The Dwarves who survived the attack were forced out and became refugees, and after a failed attempt to retake the ancient kingdom of Moria, they settled in the Blue Mountains of the far west, but many always thought of their lost home.  None grieved and brooded more than Thorin son of Thrane (Richard Armitage), grandfather to the now deceased King Under the Mountain and former ruler of Erebor.

At long last, Thorin has assembled a small band of Dwarves with plans to retake the mountain, and after gaining the assistance and council of Gandalf the Grey, they seek to use stealth as their primary advantage and as such need an expert burglar to complete their group.  This "burgler," or so Gandalf calls him, just so happens to be Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  After a little convincing, Bilbo joins the group and so the company makes their way eastward to begin their impossible quest, a quest that will see Bilbo claim a very important ring from the twisted wretch Gollum (Andy Serkis) that will influence the powers to come.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is actually a children's book, featuring many quarks, antics, and songs the likes of which don't usually feature into adult works.  The tone is certainly present at the beginning of the film and works well in the innocence of the Shire, but shortly after the journey east begins, Jackson introduces a more mature tone to what Tolkien wrote before.

Once again taking details and liberties from the Appendices featured in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Jackson introduces characters like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and has guest appearances by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee).  The Necromancer also makes an appearance, and I believe he'll have a larger showing and plot in the upcoming films than in the book.

I greatly enjoyed seeing many of the set pieces from the original trilogy, such as the Shire, Weathertop, and Rivendell.  Many classic weapons, costumes, and architectural themes return and this consistency in visual and historical style help to ground the film in the living fantasy world we know so well.  Howard Shore also returns as the film's composer, and his score is just as wonderful and thematic as it was a decade ago, reusing some old themes but expanding upon them and introducing new themes to the mix.

One of my favourite scenes from the film is the flashback to the Battle of Azanulbizar, in which we see an entire legion of Dwarves in full battle armour in desperate combat against the armies of the Orcs of the Misty Mountains.  It is here that Thorin Oakenshild distinguishes himself as a leader among his people by defeating the Orc leader Azog and defending himself using only a large piece of oak.  While this battle fits wonderfully into the story, my only criticism of the film is that many scenes are rather actioned up over their literary counterparts, and while I understand why Jackson did this, as The Lord of the Rings had some great action and battle sequences, that was a full war while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first stage of a smaller quest.  The excessive battles did feel out of place and I would have preferred more character development, however really this is a minor complaint as the film certainly features a lot of  character.

In fact, by films end I didn't feel exhausted or overtaxed at all, which is quite the accomplishment for a three hour film.  Jackson paced things well and seems to have properly thought out the breakdown from book to film, and my fear that things would be quite drawn out were unfounded.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a wonderful film and a great re-introduction to Middle-earth.  This is a quest of hope, of history, and legacy, and a foreshadowing of darkness to come.  Filled with wonderful acting, character, and effects, for those who love great fantasy and a wonderful tale, and certainly for those who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, you'll not regret taking your first steps of this adventure.

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