The first installment to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey is set to be one of the biggest movies of 2012. But will it be compared unfavourably to its older brother, The Lord Of The Rings or can it stand on its own two hairy feet?
Based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s 1937 children’s book of the same name, The Hobbit trilogy of movies takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). They will tell the story of Bilbo Baggins, a group of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield and the wizard Gandalf the Grey as they undertake a quest to The Lonely Mountain. There they seek adventure, and a treasure guarded by the dragon, Smaug.
If you haven’t read The Hobbit or LotR trilogy, you may be surprised by the difference in tone between this and the LotR movies. Whereas LotR is set in a time in which Middle Earth is becoming a very dark place, stakes are high and fate hangs in the balance, The Hobbit is a much lighter tale of adventure and fortune seeking in an era of relative peace. That being said, the events of LotR are alluded to more than once throughout the movie, and I imagine the sequels will contain more of the same. From an audience point of view, the continuity only adds to the experience, although the cynic in me worries this implies Peter Jackson did not think The Hobbit story would stand up without these additions.
Martin Freeman really delivers in the role of mild-mannered every-man Bilbo Baggins. This first installment could really be seen as his journey from a shy, retiring stick-in-the-mud to red-blooded adventurer. He creates an excellent contrast to more straight characters such as Thorin and Gandalf, although he never stoops to the level of comic relief.
As for the other characters, it was always going to be a challenge to tell a story involving 13 dwarves, and Peter Jackson delivers as well as could be expected. Even with my limited powers of facial recognition I had no problem telling them apart. The characters are far from feeling fleshed out by the movies closes however, although each one has a sort of trait such as “the old one” or “the one with the silly voice”.
Visually standards are as high as we have all come to expect from a Peter Jackson picture. An Unexpected Journey was filmed at 48 frames per second, also referred to as 48 HFR. This is double the 24 frames per second at which films are usually shot. Technical jargon aside, the effect of this is to smooth out the footage, leading to an image which looks very real indeed – almost too real in fact. Many cinemas will be showing An Unexpected Journey at a slower speed for this exact reason. I can report that whilst the new higher frame rate took a minute or two to get used to it was completely worth it, especially combined with 3D.
Despite this, the action scenes were a bit of a mixed bag on the whole – some were fantastic and very necessary but others, well they seemed somewhat messy and I found myself struggling to care about what was going on. I’d blame this on an attempt by the film-makers to target a younger audience. There is much less blood and on screen violence than LotR and that violence which is visible seems to be virtually consequence free – characters seem to survive things that would easily kill or seriously maim in a real setting; there are quite a few “no way” moments in An Unexpected Journey that really drew me out of the story. There were also quite few action scenes that felt out of place, or unnecessarily long at least. I picture the film’s creators anxiously thinking “no one’s swung a sword in ten minutes, they’ll be squirming in their seats, demanding their parents buy them ice-cream!” and adding in some more fighting. This seemed at odds with other aspects of the movie, the length as one example – at 169 minutes long, younger viewers may struggle to maintain an interest without at least one toilet break. As is common with such expensive to make blockbuster movies, The Hobbit suffers somewhat from trying to please everyone.
Whilst this detracts from the film at points, it doesn’t have that much impact on the finished product. Put simply, An Unexpected Journey is a great movie, and one of the best 2012 has to offer. It is clear that a lot of love and care has gone into every aspect of its production. Is it completely faultless? No. Should you go see it? Undoubtedly yes.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be released in UK cinemas on 13 December 2012