Note: This is based on my second viewing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rather than the more usual first due to the already mentioned issues with the Higher Frame Rate presentation. I won’t be commenting on that particular technical aspect here, but others may be raised. Suffice to say, many of the comments I make with regard technical issues produced the contrary opinion when I viewed the HFR version of the film, as far as I’m concerned it was a different film.
So, nearly ten years after we last left Middle Earth, Peter Jackson has once more dragged us back. Not it seems to merely adapt The Hobbit into film, but to present it as a means of foreshadowing the events of The Lord of the Rings instead. The result is a film that lacks the tight, cross-country pantomime plotting of the book, but in the process possibly deepens the relevance of certain events based on what will come. The results aren’t always successful.
However, it remains a top flight piece of entertainment – not quite in the league of Rings in terms of overall quality (and I’m well aware that those films have their detractors), but as good as any other large scale studio-based blockbuster being trotted out at the moment. It’s simultaneously both good, old fashioned film-making, concentrating on establishing a cohesive plot, good characters (and good actors portraying them) and – crucially- a sense of all permeating atmosphere & world building we rarely see these days (only The Dark Knight Rises has taken this much care in recent memory) and bleeding edge technology (some of which I’ve promised to refrain from commenting on again). Jackson seems to have wandered off the path in terms of lean, tight film-making – this often feels more like the extended DVD cuts rather than the cinematic version, but it would be churlish to complain too much when this is what’s on offer.
Much of the kudos must go to Martin Freeman as Bilbo. If Elijah Wood felt part of a larger ensemble rather than the focus in Rings, Freeman here is front and centre, trading in on a combination of his well established on-screen personality (slightly flustered & generally decent) and decent acting. It seems odd to make such a comment, but many these days rely on an established persona to carry them in a film, here that persona is embellished to create something more wonderful. There’s a real care to the manner in which he’s developed his comic timing in a situation, and he manages to hit the mark every time. He’s a delight to watch whenever he’s on the screen.
The rest of the (large) principal cast is hampered by its size. Whilst Rings broke the cast down into a series of smaller groups that allowed individual personalities to be established, the problem here is that the book keeps them all front-and-centre (easy to do in a book where you’re not having to create a distinct visual style for each character, you can just use their name) leaving the film to focus on three or four of the dwarves at the expense of the others, many of whom are reduced to simple comedy beats. Richard Armitage makes a fine Thorin, here cast in a similar light as Aragorn – a King in waiting – but of the rest only Ken Stott, Graham McTavish and James Nesbitt make any real impression. One thing that cannot be faulted is the visual design of the dwarves, WETA has done an excellent job of creating thirteen distinctly individual designs that never cause any visual confusion (something I’ve discussed at length in the past, in particular ILM seemed to forget about it at one stage). Whilst they may not all (yet) have individual personalities, they do all have individual visual ones.
Away from the dwarves much of the cast sees the previous actors return to their roles, and all are once again excellent. It seems odd to add further praise to Andy Serkis, but his Gollum has been on of the lynchpins of the series, and here once again he shows why he’s the foremost actor working in motion capture these days.
WETA once gain excel at the technical aspects of the film (unless the HFR experience has damaged it expect this film to dominate the technical awards come awards time), with new design choices complementing already established ones. There are more pure CGI creations this time, but there’s still a commitment to filming on set or location rather than pure green-screen work. It leans more towards the theme park ride in some of the action sequences than I’d like, but then the book is aimed at a younger audience so this is understandable.
The direction is good, the language of sweeping overhead tracking shots and long, helicopter established travelogue returns, but the mood is lighter, more playful. Occasionally the film veers into slightly more serious territory, but Jackson appears to be trying to compliment his earlier trilogy rather than extending it. Pacing wise, it may need a few trimmings to bring it down to a more comfortable length (like I said, it feels more like the extended DVD version than the theatrical release), but it never feels slow. The additional material has been skilfully inserted, with perhaps only the council of Saruman feeling a little out of place – although Jackson here sows the seeds of doubt regarding his interest in events, something that never felt quite successful in it’s implication in the first trilogy.
Only the score felt a little underwhelming, falling back on already established motifs a few too many times for my liking. The inclusion of the dwarven songs is a real triumph however, bringing in the love of language as a construction from the books. Hopefully as things progress newer themes will emerge, but this is a small complaint given the scope of the films.
Whether the book needs expanding into another trilogy is open to debate, but it’s wonderful to return once again to Middle Earth in such good company, even if the experience feels a little less grand than it did before. Once again though we’re all left waiting to see what’s in store another twelve months, reducing the excitement of other large scale releases in the process, but once again that seems to be a small price to pay when we’re being offered entertainment of this calibre.