Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Please note: on first viewing I saw the film in a Digital IMAX 3D print in the lower frame rate of 24fps (trust me, it matters.)

2012, 169 mins, 12A, Dir. Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Ken Stott

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Like a lot of people, I hungrily anticipated Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit from the start, right through from its director confusion to its casting decisions to the announcement that the whole thing would be split into two… no, three films! I managed to read the book, which was even more imaginative, colourful and witty than I could have imagined (roll on The Lord of the Rings). A lot was building on this film, and I am more than satisfied to say that, even in the wake of some negative critical response, it delivers – perhaps not in the neatest way, but it doesn’t disappoint.

An Unexpected Journey is the first of a trilogy that follows the exploits of Bilbo Baggins, a quiet and conservative Hobbit who would much rather be at home consuming tea and scones than going on an adventure with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen unpredictable dwarves. As it turns out, however, that is exactly what happens, and Bilbo finds himself up against Goblins, Orcs, trolls and a thin, intimidating creature by the name of Gollum. At least, that’s what happens in this film; there’s still a plethora of strangely shaped monsters and enemies to come, including the formidable and cunning dragon Smaug. We begin, much like The Fellowship of the Ring, with a lengthy prologue that explains the current situation of Middle-Earth with some truly fiery special effects; then we’re transported to an aged Bilbo whiling away his time in The Shire; he decides to record what has happened in his life for the sake of his son Frodo, and this is where our journey begins.

The decision to expand into three films was controversial at first; while the Lord of the Rings trilogy came from source material that was much broader and certainly not lacking in detail, The Hobbit is a relatively short children’s novel that arguably contains only enough set-pieces for one (or certainly two) films. What Peter Jackson has decided to do is incorporate other elements from Middle-Earth, from The Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien’s lengthy appendices at the end of Return of the King. The effect isn’t overwhelmingly positive. In fact, in certain parts of the narrative we certainly feel distanced from the main character and his story as Jackson scrambles to put in references to Tolkien’s world and characters; one scene of dialogue in Rivendell simply goes on for far too long. How you respond to that could very well depend on how much you’ve been looking forward to the film; certain critics have dealt with this inconsistency very harshly. But I think that there is more than enough in An Unexpected Journey that outweighs the problems with the plot.

Firstly, the casting. Martin Freeman is simply a joy to watch as Bilbo, fussing around hilariously when the dwarves first arrive in his home and later making for a truly believable hero. We have Peter Jackson to thank for waiting long enough for Freeman to become available for the film – indeed, it seems little likely that anyone else could fill his role so effectively. Though Ian McKellen’s role as Gandalf is less demanding and perhaps less interesting here, he is still a delight to watch. The dwarves also fare very well. The director arguably misses a trick by not introducing them all individually, something that certainly could have been achieved in place of another longer, pondering scene of which there are a few; it is a shame that the tiny quirks, like the random axe buried in Bifur’s head, are not dwelled on particularly. Oh well. The major dwarves are characterised reasonably well and there is more opportunity to do so in the future installments.

Bilbo with Bifur, Dwalin, Bofur and Oin (OK, I suppose the axe is sort-of noticeable…)

I also loved its humour. An Unexpected Journey has darker elements but it doesn’t ultimately disguise the fact that it is based on a children’s book, and there is plenty of physical comedy involving the dwarves, much of it revolving around the fattest of them, Bombur. The design of the characters also lends to this lighter mentality – the dwarves all have rather incredible moustaches and beards, the trolls retain their slightly cockney accents, and the Great Goblin has a chin that extends to his stomach and happens to be played by Barry Humphries (the Goblin, not the chin). How brilliant is that?

It also happens to be absolutely stunning in terms of its visuals. As if we would expect anything else from Peter Jackson – the worlds he creates (with Tolkien influence, of course) are astonishing to behold. Rivendell, once again, is beautiful to look at, while the escape scene in the Goblin Kingdom is so perfectly orchestrated it left me literally salivating for more. Who could forget, however, a quieter but pretty integral part involving riddles duelled in a dark cave? Gollum is once again vividly realised by Andy Serkis and his scene with Bilbo is arguably the greatest in the film, as it is in the book. While what’s onscreen is ravishing, how the film is presented is a different matter. I cannot comment on the impact of the new frame rate of 48fps because I simply didn’t see it in that format. I will say that I was very annoyed by the 3D in my showing, especially in IMAX; light from the screen caused very distracting reflections on my oversized glasses – for very little visible 3D effect, it was frustrating. If you’re going to see this film (and I heartily advise you should), see it in 2D to get the most out of it.

Jackson is pretty faithful to the original book. The chronology is similar and a lot of the scenes play out as I imagined them (although my mother did complain that the scene with the trolls wasn’t long enough). The songs sung by the dwarves early on in the book are not forgotten, and the director even uses Tolkien’s brief reference to rock giants as a basis for an entire set-piece that may be unnecessary but sure is fun to watch. But it’s also similar in spirit, as I’ve discussed above. The Lord of the Rings is much darker and more adult and complex, like its source material; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may have less to justify its length (and follow-ups), but it’s hard not to like. Aided by some terrific performances and visuals, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth is nothing more and nothing less than a triumph, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.

8/10

The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.
The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.

(On a side note, it was enthralling to see the return of the fanbase-Christened Figwit (as portrayed by Bret McKenzie for three seconds in The Fellowship of the Ring) in the new film; read about him here. You won’t regret it, honestly.)

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Review – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

I was privileged to attend a press screening of the new Aardman film about a month ago. After a smorgasbord of free pirate-related souvenirs and drinks in the bar (I settled on a Coke), the one and only Brian Blessed, who voices a character in the film, gave a small speech before the show. He didn’t actually say anything much related to the film, instead settling for an enthusiastic “GORDON’S ALIVE!” which nonetheless set the audience alight. Because of a press embargo I wasn’t able to post a review until its release date; I was nonetheless very keen to write about it as soon as possible. Enjoy the review.

Review – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

2012, 88mins, TBC, Dir. Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, starring Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven.

The latest offering from the irresistible animation studios Aardman is a brisk and spirited adaptation from the first of a series of children’s novels by Gideon Defoe. It’s a supremely outlandish adventure tale of a crew of  hapless, accident-prone pirates, led by the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who in search of booty accidentally destroys Charles Darwin’s Beagle. But that’s not all – there’s a ‘Pirate of the Year’ contest on the rocks, and the Pirate Captain is keen to prove his daredevil enemies wrong by bringing home some loot.

If that all sounds a bit strange, then you’re completely right. The Pirates! is by far the oddest feature film given to us yet from Aardman. Everything from its bewildering subtitle (an adventure with scientists?) to its voice-acting, in-jokes, sight-gags and dialogue has a firm, unashamed sense of the oddball. It has intelligent monkeys, albino pirates, sudden and impossible changes of dress – even a cameo from the elephant man. It would be utterly criminal to reveal anything more, but you get the picture.

You could put this sense of strangeness down to the lack of a driving narrative; the film feels like it has less of a consistent storyline than a series of extravagant set-pieces, or sketches, and it feels as choppy as the water our characters sail on. Nevertheless, it manages to be consistently funny, and the characters are brilliantly written and performed. Charles Darwin, played by David Tennant, is depicted as a complete loner with only his wordless primate for company; the Pirate Captain – with a voice that is Hugh Grant’s but barely recognisable – a loveable yet comparatively soft sailor; Queen Victoria, Imelda Staunton, a supremely angry monarch who just happens to know how to wield a samurai sword. There are also contributions from Brendan Gleeson, Lenny Henry and Martin Freeman, amongst others, as fellow pirates.

All in all, you have to admire the craftsmanship of the thing. Aardman, with Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt at the helm, once again do a fantastic job in animating the film, utilising both clay-animation and the odd bit of CGI. The characters move with splendid fluidity and the action sequences are tremendous fun. The simple fact that a few of the extravagant sets made by the filmmakers only appear for a matter of minutes show the astounding attention to detail and commitment by the studio to making great films. But can The Pirates! be called great? Well, some may have problems with its plot,  but the silliness of its premise and its equally silly gags are just enough as far as some audiences are concerned.

Notice the Blue Peter badge on the right…

4 out of 5