Friday 14 December 2012

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (2012) - Peter Jackson

The Hobbit is, to all intents and purposes, a simple children’s fairytale.  Yet Jackson’s film is, unexpectedly, a very different tale.  Following the success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit completes the franchise.  But is messing with Tolkien’s precious work sacrilege?

Jackson’s film is bloated like a fat hobbit after second breakfast.  Retaining a bare skeleton of the plot, there are great swathes of new material and extra details taken from The Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth bible The Silmarillion.  Fans of Tolkien’s universe will appreciate the opportunity to relish in his fantastical world again and, by staying faithful to his previous films, Jackson has created a coherent vision.

What the film gains in back story, it loses in character.  The stubborn dwarves may look different (with their silly noses) but their characters are ultimately indistinct and less immediately likeable than The Lord of the Rings’ fellowship.  With two more films in the trilogy, there’s still time for their personalities to develop.  Yet the focus has been taken away from Bilbo, the titular hobbit.  As the title suggests, this is his story, with Martin Freeman providing (too much?) humanity that contrasts with the more fantastical characters.  Richard Armitage plays a brooding Thorin Oakenshield and, of course, Ian McKellan returns as a wonderful Gandalf.

Though initially a standalone book as the first Tolkien wrote, in hindsight it’s difficult to separate The Hobbit from the wider history of Middle Earth.  Here, though, the subtle links to The Lord of the Rings have been crudely and gratuitously implemented.  Extra events have been superfluously forced into the plot that dilute the book’s humble charm, whilst borrowed characters are included mainly for the pay cheque.  Simply put, expanding the story into a trilogy was an unnecessary move, removing momentum and urgency whilst overly-dramatising what is, essentially, a short quest for treasure.  On the other hand, Shore’s musical score works in the opposite direction – rousing themes lifted from The Lord of the Rings provide nostalgia, whereas his new motifs lack the same invention.

However, what remains is still a thrilling adventure story.  Though the majority of the action differs considerably from the book, it’s been heightened and dramatised for full impact on the big screen with sweeping cinematography.  The mountain giants in particular turn a passing comment into an exciting sequence.  Though there is a reliance on CGI, the special effects and choreographed battles are spectacular, from the creature designs to the angular dwarven architecture.  After a well-told prologue explaining the purpose of the dwarves' quest to reclaim their treasure from the dragon Smaug, the film does take a while to kick into gear, but the introduction of Serkis’s infamous Gollum picks up the pace as well as the laughter.  The overall script belies Tolkien’s poetic writing in favour of comic quips, diminishing the mystic but reflecting the lighter tone of the book.  The real star, however, is the New Zealand landscape, which is breathtakingly shot.

As a side note, the BFI IMAX in London is disappointingly not showing the film in 48fps, so this sadly cannot be commented on.  The film does benefit from the screen’s impact, though the 3D effect is minimal and blurry.

The credits don’t lie when they mention “based on the novel” – this is not the journey fans may be expecting.  Jackson has taken the bold move of being more faithful to his dark adult vision established in his previous films than to Tolkien’s childlike original.  For all its faults in raping adapting the book, The Hobbit remains a fantastic adventure.  Whilst optimistic this will continue in the following films, viewers may be somewhat disappointed by the treatment of Tolkien’s text.