It must be fun being short (or ‘vertically challenged’ if you want to go for the overly PC term). There’s no low ceilings or door frames to be contended with, hide and seek is a doddle and most exciting of all you are perfectly suited for an epic adventure.
At least that’s what The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would have us believe. On this latest foray into the Lord of the Rings universe, everyone’s second (or third…or more, delete as appropriate) hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is joined by a cohort of 13 dwarves and Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), or rather he finds himself swept off on an adventure before you can say Gollum.
The story begins as something of an intro to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, setting up events before Bilbo’s long-expected 111th birthday party. Here the weight of the franchise falls heaviest, with a somewhat unnecessary cameo from Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, and the entire section seems to drag on too long, as much as you have to love Ian Holm as old Bilbo.
The fun really begins as Gandalf quizzes young Bilbo about the exact meaning of ‘Good day’, immediately cementing Freeman in the audience’s mind as the Bilbo from here on in.
Freeman, who was sought after to the point that Peter Jackson put a break in filming specifically so he could take the lead, shines as the reluctant hero, showing all the traits of the character we know and a whole lot more.
The dwarves are a rag tag bunch of personalities, too numerous to be able to pick out every one (or even remember specific names…), but the obvious stand out is Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage of Spooks and Captain America fame.
This film itself is driven by Thorin’s need to reclaim his grandfather’s realm from the great dragon Smaug, whose lust for gold drew him to take the fortress and leave it’s inhabitants running for their lives. Thorin’s tale is well told, and there is a real sense of pity for the character, while at the same time being intimidated by him, despite his stature, just as Bilbo is.
The other dwarves serve their purpose but only James Nesbitt as Bofur is really memorable, serving as effective comic relief. In fact you can spend much of the film working out who is playing each one and where you have seen them before.
The tale takes us to familiar locations such as Rivendell and we meet characters such as Saruman, who we immediately do not trust, knowing of his later betrayal. There are also new faces such as Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a fellow great, but rag tag, wizard who spends his time in the forest with animals, including rabbits which pull his slay, like a cross between Father Christmas and Worzel Gummidge.
Gollum’s return is a welcome one and Andy Serkis puts 10 years of advancement in technology to good use in making him look more scarily real than ever. The chemistry between Freeman and Serkis on screen makes for some tense moments, but you do worry whether this card has been played too early, with the real meat of the adventure still to come, and how can the film top the tales of Gollum in LOTR?
The epic camera sweeps across beautiful New Zealand return, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a mere retread of LOTR. The quest and the story are both much more personal, character-driven affairs, which make for a more intimate feature. Of course there are grand moments, such as a chase sequence when the gang try to escape a goblin stronghold, but there are more dialogue driven scenes.
Leaps of faith are necessary in some areas, particularly when Gandalf uses his old ‘summon the giant eagles’ trick, prompting much eye-rolling followed by “Why did they drop them off there rather than at the lonely mountain?” Luckily the story itself is interesting enough for you to want to see the journey just as much as the destination.
Music and cinematography are top quality, something you would expect from a team led by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson who filmed the previous films, but in order to hold audience’s attention for a further two films, he will need to give more. Many things which are forgiveable about this instalment of The Hobbit won’t be overlooked in part two: The Desolation of Smaug.
In all, the film is a solid effort which is a must for existing fans of the universe, but unlikely to sway those put off by the initial trilogy.
James Michael Parry