The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

The Hobbit
Ok, when I saw the trailer for this recently I was less than impressed. Of course the visuals looked sumptous but the dialogue! Oh dear, it looked a clunker. Then of course there was the fact of Jackson’s making it into three (!) films, adding in loads of material from the appendices of Lord of the Rings and, judging by the trailer, loads of garbage from his own imagination, seemingly all to justify padding out a slight children’s book into three bloated blockbusters.

Then the reviews came out. Yes the film was overlong, particularly at the start, and no it wasn’t wholly successful but, overall, the reviews were positive and suggested that the film was worth watching. If I was going to see it, it had to be at a cinema worth going to see so I picked the Bradford IMAX, to get the maximum value from the 3D New Zealand/Middle Earth scenery. Overall, I’m glad I did. The film is worth seeing, and it’s worth seeing on a big screen, but it’s certainly not an unalloyed pleasure.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo is terrific and Ian McKellen is just as good as Gandalf as he ever was in Lord of the Rings. Richard Armitage and Ken Stott add value as Thorin and Balin, chief amongst the Dwarfs and there are welcome returns for Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, and a nice cameo from Elijah Wood – as well as, of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum. Sylvester McCoy is also pretty good as Radagast, a barely mentioned figure in the original book, one of several much-expanded characters here.

For anyone who doesn’t know the book, it hardly seems worth going in to too many details. It’s set before Lord of the Rings and tells how Bilbo the Hobbit joins a group of Dwarfs who are setting off to their ancient home in the East in the hope that they can reclaim it from Smaug the dragon. They are not capable of defeating a dragon in battle but are persuaded by Gandalf the wizard to recruit Bilbo as a burglar, as they have a map of a secret entrance to the halls under the Lonely Mountain and, anyway, the dragon has not been seen for sixty years – perhaps he’s dead? (of course he’s not) It also tells, although it’s largely incidental to this story, of the discovery of the ‘One Ring’ on which the whole of the rest of Tolkein’s later tale rests.

There is much to like about this film – like Lord of the Rings (particularly the first part, still for me the only wholly successful one), it has imagined many parts of the book in a way that will forever be them for me now – and that is meant in a good way – but where it fails are where the second and third Lord of the Rings episodes also failed for me, where Jackson either strays too far from the original or where he stays too faithful. The hobbit is a children‘s book and, while the story is expanded on in the LotR appendices, these are essentially two very different versions of the same story. In trying to ramrod the two together, and using some director’s license in pulling other material into The Hobbit, Jackson creates some very jarring scenes where the juvenile origin of his material just looks silly in the context of the larger narrative he’s telling.

What’s most concerning, when all’s said and done, is how the hell can he string out the second half of the book into two whole films? I have a horrible feeling that I know the answer. Very, very long battle scenes. I’m not sure I’ll be there to watch them but he may yet surprise me. He did, after all, pleasantly surprise me here.

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