The road is long
After some years of watching big-ticket fantasies about muscle-bound sociopaths doing us all a gigantic favour by saving the world as we know it, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a shock to our movie-going sensibilities from the moment it begins. Sunlight pours into the frame; the rich, rolling greens of Hobbiton undulate before our eyes; the soft, indulgent voice of Ian Holm, the British actor who plays the elderly Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, welcomes us into a reminiscence about his younger self, a comfortable, bookish gentle hobbit with a deep distrust of adventure, who went along on one anyway.
What follows is by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, enchanting and irritating, although at a running time of 169 minutes, this film’s primary quality is simply that it is staggeringly long. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, unlike his opus The Lord of the Rings, is relatively small in size as well as imaginative scope, and unlike with film-maker Peter Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, which will be followed by two sequels in 2013 and 2014, has to expand the action, not compress it.
In nearly three hours, the film just about covers the first six chapters of the book. An extended prologue introducing us to Middle-earth and the particular historical conflict in which Bilbo will come to play his part is beautifully judged, and will draw in Tolkien fans as well as newbies. At leisure, the film introduces us to the retiring, fussy Bilbo, who is part-charmed, part-bullied into accepting a part in a scheme whereby 13 dwarves attempt to recapture their long-lost homeland from a dragon, aided by maverick wizard Gandalf the Grey.
Jackson, together with writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, ensures that you lose little of the tone and impact of the story even if you are unfamiliar with the books or earlier movies. Every joke arrives in the expected place, and every fight ends with a hoped-for result, but the predictability doesn’t quite diminish our enjoyment of them.
The Hobbit is a children’s book, and An Unexpected Journey is, unequivocally, a children’s film. Never is this more evident than in the outstanding action sequences in which the dwarven company fights off trolls and orcs (or goblins), all created by Tolkien with the sort of light touch that he was never to display in his works for older readers. The CGI effects are superb; Jackson’s Middle-earth comes alive in even more gorgeous detail than before. Nothing seems dated or awkward, except for the elves, with Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett reprising their roles as Elrond and Galadriel in cameo.
Grim, stiff and joyless, Jackson’s vision of the elven settlement Rivendell is a holdover from the warlike LOTR trilogy; they are a rare case where the film’s aesthetic seems unequal to the task of recreating Tolkien’s world.
The luxury of time allows Jackson to leave every memorable line and scene from the book in place. This serves all the classic sequences—the Bag End party, the riddle game, the trolls—well. But while stretching the text out may be good for extended fights with wolves, it weakens the movie as an adaptation, and ascribes a scale to The Hobbit that it does not actually possess. In fact, the structure of An Unexpected Journey doesn’t echo the book so much as the first film of the LOTR trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, with its narrative highs and lows arriving at suspiciously familiar places, and with the dispossessed dwarven king, Thorin Oakenshield, coming to stand in for Aragorn, the dispossessed human king.
Since 13 dwarves are about 10 too many for an ensemble cast, most of the Free Erebor company, at least in this instalment, are more easily identified by their beards than their names. This film narrows its emotional focus down to three heroes in the making. Thorin is played handsomely, if a little too grandiosely, by Richard Armitage. He carries the weight of a long and melancholy history, but the film allows us to glimpse the grumpy, fallible Thorin of the book only occasionally. Ian McKellen’s irrepressible Gandalf is more charming than he has ever been, and, happily, gets more screen time and action than ever before.
Bilbo, of course, is the heart of the film, and Martin Freeman, who starts off a bit nervily in the early sequences, develops him beautifully as his story progresses. In an age of super-nihilists, Tolkien’s tale of unlikely heroes may seem more hopelessly old-fashioned than ever. But Freeman’s warm-hearted, wobbly-kneed Bilbo isn’t meant to save the world; he only holds out a glimmer of hope, both to children and to adults, that you can be an idealist, and surprise yourself, even if you are very scared.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey released in theatres on Friday.