The Hobbit: And Unexpected Journey

So then, the Hobbit movie. This could well be the most high-profile and famous title I've ever done a review for. A film that has been eagerly awaited by millions of people across the globe and serves as a follow-up to the famous trilogy made by Peter Jackson over a decade ago. Let's get to it then.

The Hobbit is a story set in the fictional world of Middle-Earth and features a Hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman), who enjoys the comforts of life and would never dream of doing anything unexpected. Then one day, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) comes to him and invites him to join on a quest not only with Gandalf but with a company of twelve dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Although reluctant, Bilbo agrees to go with them and they travel across the land in the hopes of re-taking the ancient dwarf kingdom of Erebor from the clutches of the evil dragon, Smaug.

I'd like to get it out in the open right now that I am a massive Tolkien fan. When I was growing up, the Hobbit was pretty much essential reading in my English literature classes, and ever since, I've been hooked, collecting and reading every single Middle-Earth story he ever wrote, even the obscure stuff. And that's to be expected of course, for when it comes to fantasy literature, Mr J R R Tolkien is pretty much the father of the genre, having given it a greater respect and popularity than it ever achieved before.

The Hobbit is, of course, a prequel to the previous Tolkien films, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which was also made by Peter Jackson. And as such there's going to be comparison between the two sets of films. This puts me in a difficult position as the LOTR trilogy, specifically Fellowship of the Ring, have always been, to me at least, the greatest achievement in the history of cinema. Those films were pretty much the reason I got into reviewing in the first place, as writing a review of our favourite films was once a school assignment of mine. So to say that my expectations of the Hobbit movie were high would be a great understatement.

Fortunately for me, this films proves that it's every bit as entertaining and worth watching as it's predecessors. I guess I'll start by talking about what I think of the story which, if you know the source material, is meant as a far more light-hearted and child-friendly story than it's more mature LOTR sequel. But that in itself is no strike against it. After all, if there's one thing people should have learned about me by now it that I never dismiss a work because of it's target audience.

One thing that does need to be explained about this story is the fact that the film has had to be expanded from it's intended two films into three. This decision came after they decided to incorporate elements from Tolkien's other works that he only later revealed took place during the events of the Hobbit. As such many of the things that happen in this movie, such as the inclusion of Radagast the Brown, are things which die-hard Hobbit fans will know never actually occurred in the book itself.

I find that this change is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it illustrates something I really loved about Tolkien's stories. Every time you read one of his books, be it the Hobbit, LOTR or some other book, you always got the feeling that what you were reading was merely one part of the greater whole of this world he made. That as interesting as the story you were reading was, there were a hundred other stories out there, happening at the same time, each one with the potential to be just as interesting as the one you were reading.

And that expansion of the films really gets that point across. By incorporating all these other elements, these notions that grand things are happening elsewhere in Middle Earth, it gives the film a greater sense of scope. On the other hand however, there is the issue that having the dragon's involvement be the result in some darker force does somewhat undermine the importance of the journey our characters are going through. After all, if this is merely one part of a far larger story, why should we the audience care?

However, I must say that in spite of that, I found myself very much engaged with the story and it's characters. The dwarves quest to reclaim their home after their exile feels genuine to me, and not once did I ever feel like this story was unimportant, or somehow lesser than Jackson's previous film. And that something I think this film has above it's source material. As much as I liked the Hobbit, I never once found myself connecting with the plight of these people. Oh sure I'd be sad when bad things happen, but the film version really drives home what these people are going through, and that's definitely a plus for me.

There have been some complaints that it's wrong to take a story intended for children and "beef it up" for the purposes of having it be a more action-oriented and epic story. And I can understand such criticisms. After all, I threw such comments at the recent Narnia movies when they first came out. But here, I think it works. It makes it more mature yes, but not in such a way that younger audiences can't enjoy it. It keeps the relatively light-hearted tone of the source material where it counts, and the more serious stuff they added seem to improve the overall feel of the film.

As for the actors, we have some fine work going on here. Many of the actors and actresses of the LOTR films come back to reprise their roles with great effect. Ian McKellen, Cat Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and others all do very well in slipping back into these roles despite being out of them for so long, so much so that you forget just how long it's been since we've seen these characters on-screen together. Of the returning cast, my hat goes off most to Sir Ian, whose performance as Gandalf was always a delight to me.

The main character, Bilbo, is played by Martin Freeman, is also cast well. Freeman has, in the past, been noted for his more comedic performances, which makes him an idea choice for a role as a main lead in a largely children's story. But he clearly shows that throughout this film he has the talent to really do some of the more dramatic moments the character has to go through. Moments like Bilbo's doubt as to whether or not he's good enough to be a part of this was portrayed very convincingly, and I expect Mr Freeman will be getting many offers for good film in future because of this.

But for me, the absolute standout performance has to be Richard Armitage as the dwarf leader, Thorin. And the reason I say that is because this character could very easily have become one-note. When you read about him in the books you get the idea of this fairly bland, stoic, humourless guy, not the kind you'd be very uninterested in. But Armitage does very well here. You still get the strong and stoic leader you expect from this role, but Armitage also shows off the more unsure and vulnerable side of his character. In many ways, Thorin became even more of a main character in this than Bilbo, because that performance honestly made me care more about his personal goals than what the actual main character was going through.

As for the rest of the cast, they all do fine work. The actors portraying the dwarves all fill their roles well, providing both comic relief but also showing the more serious sides of their characters when needed. Special mention also has to go to Sylvester McCoy as Radagast. Aside from the sheer joy of seeing Doctor Who in a Tolkien adaptation (something which brought a big smile to my face I can assure you), but he really does get the whole "eccentric woodland sage" thing very well. I don't know if they plan to bring him back in subsequent films, but I very much hope he does.

When it comes to the effects, what can I say? it's Weta Workshop and co going back to doing what they do best. I was always astounded by the quality of the effects back in the L;OTR films, which still look good even after ten years. And it's clear that these guys have lost none of their talents. Every shot, be it filled with effects or not, is simply gorgeous. True, you can tell often tell when CGI is on-screen, such as the goblin king or the wargs, but other effects, like returning character Gollum, are just as convincing as ever.

However, when effects are being discussed, I cannot fail to mention the film's main antagonist, Azog. When I first saw this film, I was convinced that it had to be an actor in heavy make-up, as orcs often were. It was only when I started looking at some of the making-of documentaries of the films that I realised he was computer-animated. Now THAT was some special effects. To have me go the entire film without realising it was CGI is not something I experience very often, but when I do, it's always a delight, because it shows how you can use those effects in a convincing manner.

Howard Shore returns to see to the music in this film and as with the LOTR, he brings his A-game. There was not a single musical moment in this movie that I thought sounded bad. Every piece fit the ton and mood of the scenes and locations perfectly. And it was a joy for me to be able to recognise old favourites ,like the musical themes for the shire. There are also a number of songs in this film which were also nice to listen to, in particular the Misty Mountains song by the dwarves. Moments like that really added a lot of atmosphere to the film and always drew me in.

So then, does this film topple my old favourite in the LOTR trilogy? Hard to say. While it's certainly an impressive film in it's own right, I won't be able to really compare it at this early stage. But regardless, the first Hobbit movie was one of the most enjoyable times at the cinema I've had in a very long time, and has, for the first time in many years, actually got me excited for seeing sequels. I don't know if the following films, "The Desolation of Smaug" in 2013, or "There and back again" in 2014, will have the same impact, but I very much hope they do. This film was a joy to watch and listen to, and worthy of just as many Oscars as it's predecessor.

Well then, now that I've said what I needed to, I'm off to listen to the Misty Mountains song on YouTube for the hundredth time this week.

 

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