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Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

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First up, let me just say that I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings.  By this, I do not mean I enjoyed a handful of films I saw a decade ago.  I love the books, I’ve read them and seen the films several times.  I like the mythology in The Silmarillion and clamber after every bit I can get.  Consequently, I really enjoyed The Hobbit.  And yet, it left me feeling frustrated because, for me, it came close to being a masterpiece, but fell perilously short several key areas.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy excelled in making Middle-Earth a living, breathing world inhabited by real yet fantastical characters.  It did so through taking the breathtaking scenery of New Zealand and seamlessly integrating CGI and fantastic prosthetics into magnificent sets and superb landscapes.  Yet, in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson almost inexplicably choses to tinker with this finely honed balance and go more all-out with CGI.  The most obvious is the character of Azog, who Jackson Gollum-ises, and Manu Bennett’s performance lost behind a thoroughly unrealistic looking computerised Orc.  There was no real need to do so, since Azog is largely seen in facial close-ups that expose the short-comings of the CGI.  The result?  It transplanted me from the magical world of Middle-Earth and back into my cinema seat faster than you could shout “RUN!” (which happens quite a lot in the movie).  If I could ask Jackson anything, it’d be that The Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t need all this fancy CGI in every scene to work wonderfully, so why did The Hobbit?   If it ain’t broke…

The landscapes that were so beautifully natural and compelling in LotR are too often replaced with computerised scenes, and while in certain places such as Rivendell this works magically, later sequences with Azog in the forest feel like watching a cartoon.  A consequence of this reliance on CGI orcs and landscapes is a change in filming style from LotR, with a large number of quick shots and snappy cuts between sword slices and arrow shots.  Perhaps Jackson is attempting to avoid drawing too much attention to the CGI, but again the result is that it makes it a distinct challenge to get involved in the action.  The sublime action sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring in Moria is replaced by something more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon in Goblin Town, running over endless bridges and pushing computerised orcs off them.  It’s all very pretty, but never feels particularly like Middle-Earth to me.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: a warg from The Two Towers above one from The Hobbit.  

 

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Both look quite computerised, yet the Two Towers warg seems to keep very natural colour tones all over, and feels to me like a very believable beast.  The Hobbit warg seems like an extremely cliched werewolf with a cliched sinister face and glowing eyes.  It just didn’t feel particularly real to me.

Some of the CGI is superb, however.  Gollum is even better than the stellar animations in the original trilogy, and there are times where he simply looks as real as the brilliant Martin Freeman in the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ sequence.  The opening scenes in Erebor at the height of Dwarf control are simply magnificent.  I always wondered how Moria would look in its prime, and Erebor answered.  As I mentioned, Rivendell looks superb, and I thought the sequence in Mirkwood with Radagast was excellent both in its CGI and the performance of Sylvester McCoy.

Speaking more generally of the film, I cannot disagree more with those who claim it is too long, or that the attempt to split the book into three films is a cash-grab.  It feels like neither.  The only sequence I could argue was a waste of time was the battle of the Stone Giants, which although mentioned in the book, is made a little too Transformers-esque for no real reason.  Everything included in the film I enjoyed being there, especially the cameos from Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Christopher Lee’s Saruman in Rivendell.

The pacing is admittedly slow in the beginning, but with thirteen dwarves to introduce, understandably so.  Similarly, I found the dwarves interesting enough – particularly Thorin, Balin, Bofur and Ori – to sustain my interest through this period.  Once the action gets going, it never really lets up.  Which leads onto another criticism, which is that Martin Freeman’s titular Hobbit character seems somewhat secondary through large chunks of the film, particularly in Rivendell.  The trailer showed shots of Bilbo wandering through Rivendell, encountering the Shards of Narsil.  Not to be seen in the film however, and I feel the decision to give sole focus in the Rivendell sequence to Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond and Saruman discussing Radagast’s news and the Morgul Blade a mistake.  Bilbo’s decision to leave the Company shortly afterward felt flat and somewhat out of the blue.  Some additional footage – although not in lieu of Saruman’s council – would have worked a treat here, both in developing Bilbo and helping his storyline flow into the next stage of the adventure.

Martin Freeman’s performance is flawless: his naivety, curiosity and bravery are perfectly characterised through Bilbo, and he is thoroughly watchable – perhaps even more so than Frodo in the original trilogy.  Similarly, Ian McKellen is fantastic and Richard Armitage is excellent as Thorin.  In general, the casting is superb.  Even James Nesbitt (coincidentally, my fourth cousin!) holds his own in his one conversation with Bilbo in the cave.

There are several magical moments and magnificent scenes in the film that hold their own against LotR.  The opening sequence in Erebor, the council at Rivendell, the trolls in the forest and the meeting with the Goblin leader stand out.  By far the best sequence, however, remains Bilbo and Gollum in the cavern, exchanging riddles.  Andy Serkis is – as expected – stunning, and Martin Freeman is an engaging and dynamic foil.  It’s sad that Gollum presumably won’t appear in the next two films, and they will have to find their own stand-out sequences – or better yet, stand out on their own as a whole!

Gandalf & Radagast-Ian McKellen & Sylvester McCoy

I think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was confused about what it wanted to be.  In some ways, Jackson wanted to capture the up-beat nature of the book, making it more comical, exciting and dynamic than The Lord of the Rings.  And yet, at the same time, he seems desperate to have crafted a mythological partner and natural forbearer to the earlier trilogy.  He wanted the grand scale, the epic environments and stunning world of The Lord of the Rings.  Yet, The Hobbit is a very different kettle of fish as a novel in the first place.  It’s smaller, more intimate, and less epic than its successor novels.  Trying to blend both styles has left both falling short.  The innocence and fun of The Hobbit becomes secondary to the epic world of Middle-Earth and story of The Lord of the Rings, yet the Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings becomes diluted – more cartoonised and disjointed than we left it when The Return of the King faded to credits.

I read a review – and I can’t recall where, or I would cite it – that The Hobbit trilogy doesn’t have the benefit of three natural breaks that The Lord of the Rings had to capitalise on.  The result may very well be that the entire trilogy needs to be watched in a row to get a real sense of the balance and purpose of the films.  So in this sense, my judgement is reserved.  And I do think that I’ll get used to the CGI in later films, now I’m expecting it (reluctantly!).

Perhaps this review has been somewhat hypercritical.  I really enjoyed the film, and I’d go and see it again.  Yet I feel as though I’ve been lift grinding my teeth – that only a few small scenes and less reliance on CGI would have propelled this film into true excellence, because it is fantastically performed and an exquisite telling of the story in the book.  Perhaps the next two films will rediscover the balance, but for now, The Hobbit must content itself with being a strong and excellent film, but falling far short of Jackson’s self-inflicted standards of brilliance.

Grade: B+

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