Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (2012)

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Directed by – Peter Jackson
Written by – Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro & Fran Walsh
Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring – Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman & Mark Hadlow

Let’s begin with a caveat, as it might help contextualise some of my criticisms about the first part of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. I’ve never been a huge Lord of the Rings fan. I respect them for what they are, and I think Jackson handles the thankless task of bringing Tolkien’s vast universe to life with real verve but, as a series of films, I find the entire saga hugely bloated. Tolkien’s universe is colossal, and to fit it all into just three films was no simple task, but I’ve always felt that Jackson spends far too long indulging his own desires to truly understand what makes a decent film. Everything is dragged on just that little bit longer than is necessary, resulting in a series of films that are expansive and full of admiration for the literature from which they are adapted, but that are also sluggish and unfocussed.

It was with this in mind that I came to approach An Unexpected Journey. Since The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has directed two very different films – the messy but entertaining King Kong and a dreadful adaptation of The Lovely Bones – and so I was intrigued to see if his style had changed. I’ve always felt that Heavenly Creatures was Jackson’s masterpiece, primarily because it combines his fanciful direction with a dark, brutal realism that plays out like a nightmare on the screen. Alas, it seems that Jackson is still lost to subtlety. While An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable romp, it feels like a first draft that no-one has been brave enough to suggest needs trimming down rather substantially…

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An Unexpected Journey is everything I’d been expecting, though it wasn’t quite the turgid, boring slog that others have suggested. At just over 160 minutes, it suffers from all of the problems that the all of the Lord of the Rings films fell victim to though to its credit, it is much more in the vein of Fellowship… than the other two films in that series, both of which are far too stodgy. The film spends most of this time laying the foundations for the quest to reclaim the Mountain of Erebor from a terrible dragon named Smaug. We begin just before the events of Fellowship, with a cameo appearance from Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins (played in the rest of the film by Martin Freeman; Sherlock, The World’s End) as he starts to write his memoirs. We then jump back in time to the start of Bilbo’s “unexpected journey”, and follow him, Gandalf (McKellen; The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, X-Men) and a team of dwarves on the first part of said journey.

Now, it’s been over a decade since I read Tolkien’s book but even I know that it isn’t famed for its War & Peace-esque length. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s Middle Earth Universe is vast and though I have numerous problems with Jackson’s film, he captures the fictional World in which it is set to the absolute letter. Alas, once the vast set designs and bizarre intricacies of Middle Earth are wiped away, you’re left with a film that feels incredibly shallow and one that doesn’t work as a piece of drama. Unlike the novel, Jackson’s film feels like a series of increasingly absurd set-pieces that have been strung together with little care for what happens in the quieter spaces. The film stops and starts constantly; we get a chase scene, followed by some overwrought, flabby dialogue, followed by another chase scene, a battle, more dialogue, pointless fan-service references to the earlier films and then more fighting, yet there’s little to hold the final piece together.

Early in the film Gandalf tells Bilbo that “all good stories deserve embellishment”, and Jackson appears to have taken that mantra just a bit too seriously as he drags every single scene to its absolute extremes. His fetishist approach to Tolkien’s work leaves us with a film that never delivers on its promises; we endure the dwarves singing because we know the quest is about to start. We put up with the constant walking and talking because we’re led to believe that we’ll be at Erebor soon. We even accept the ceaseless scenes of people running away from Orcs because, well, surely we’re near the end!? Alas, we never are because we still have two more films to go. In a sense, one has to give Jackson credit for dragging such a short book out quite so long but after a while it just becomes tedious. Jackson seems to have no sense of how to actually tell a story; he kicks the drama off and then brings it to a halt abruptly when consistency and a slow but steady increase in tension would have been much more effective.

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The biggest disappointment for me, however, is that the film is full of characters but so utterly devoid of characterisation. All of the characters feel like stereotypes and parodies of what we expect from those who reside in the world of fantasy fiction, and a large part of this is down to the acting which, to be blunt, is pretty substandard. Martin Freeman suits the role of Bilbo but there’s only so far his naturally bumbling persona can take him before you start to realise that Martin Freeman is just playing Martin Freeman. I have no issue with Martin Freeman, I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, but I’m not sure I want to watch him going on a quest for 9 hours… similarly, while McKellen’s shtick as Gandalf is always entertaining, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was just phoning this one in. I can excuse some of the performances because it’s impossible for anyone to make the clunky dialogue that this film offers sound good but, on the whole, the acting just wasn’t up to scratch.

However, despite all of these reservations, I do think that there’s a decent film in here somewhere. There are moments when the action is undeniably thrilling and for all of the nonsense, a few of the quieter sequences are wonderful to just sit back and revel in. I actually don’t have too much of a problem with the stuff at the Shire as it helps to introduce this bizarre universe to a new audience and lay the foundations for the dangers ahead, and I think the entire sequence in the Goblin Caves – particularly the return of Gollum – is up there with the best that anything Lord of the Rings had to offer. I also think, for all of the lame humour, that some of the minor dwarves are brilliant. Alas, the film is at least one hour too long and it serves to drag the thing down considerably.

It’s clear that Jackson is a huge Tolkien fan and I think that that’s where the film’s appeal truly lies. If you’re the type of person who wishes to spend all day revelling in this vast universe then An Unexpected Journey is probably the film for you. If you like, but did not love, The Lord of the Rings then you might, as I did, find the film plodding and a bit deflating. Either way though, we’re stuck with six more hours of this story so we’re going to just have to hope that the next two instalments rectify the problems that this one encountered, otherwise we could be in for a real slog…