An unwieldy but enjoyable odyssey unfolds in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson transports audiences back to the incredible world of Middle-earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Amazingly, it’s nearly 10 years since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy  soared to a triumphant conclusion. The Return of the King, the closing chapter of the saga based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novels, went on to scoop 11 Oscars – vindication for Jackson’s scrupulously mounted and impeccably cast vision.

In the years since, the world has been bitten by the fantasy/historical bug, on screens both big (Eragon) and small (Game of Thrones). But if we cast our minds back to the mid-2000s, it felt like there was something missing in the fantasy universe. In-spite of all the spiritual successors that followed in Jackson’s wake, the gap left by Lord of the Rings was on the scale of Khazad Dum. Would we ever see Tolkien’s work back on the silver-screen again?

Fast forward to the end of the decade. Portents began to swirl, often so elusive they may as well have been spoken in Elvish. Could it be that The Hobbit was on its way to cinemas? Would Tolkien’s work return to the silver-screen to rule them all, just like the one-ring?

It turned out the omens were true – The Hobbit was indeed set for a cinematic adaptation, with acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro at the helm. However, the road in getting The Hobbit to the screen proved trickier than getting a group of Uruk-Hai to walk a trapeze and after numerous delays, del Toro finally walked, leaving Jackson to take his place.

It’s both a blessing and a curse to have Jackson back in the director’s chair. On the plus side, his reverence and love for the source material is unimpeachable. On the downside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey bears the bloated hallmarks of Jackson’s recent works like King Kong and The Lovely Bones. Put simply, respect for the source is fine – but it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Let’s start at the beginning. Martin Freeman is an impeccable casting choice as the mannered incarnation of the young Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End. Little wonder Jackson held out for the star of Sherlock and The Office. Freeman’s command of body language and speech to suggest someone out of their depth is perfect for this story of a hobbit plunged into an adventure beyond his understanding.

In a flashback structure that ties in with the party scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, Ian Holm’s elderly Bilbo is shown to be writing down the story of The Hobbit for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood in the briefest of appearances). We’re then taken back 60 years. The reluctant Bilbo is tricked by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into hosting a party for a rambunctious band of dwaves, among them the stoic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).

Bilbo must be persuaded to join their band as the resident ‘burglar’, as the dwarves attempt to reclaim their gold from the lost kingdom of Erebor, stolen from them by the ferocious dragon Smaug. Domesticated Bilbo is appalled and initially turns the invitation down – but the lure of adventure is too strong and he eventually joins their party, setting off into the great unknown to help steal the treasure back from the dreaded fire-breather.

It’s important to say outright that The Hobbit is a vastly different novel from The Lord of the Rings, infused more with a sense of whimsical adventure than end-of-the-world sturm und drang. And herein lies the main problem. Perhaps recognising that the slender book may be too childlike and lighthearted for an audience accustomed to Rings-style portent, Jackson has made (or at least has been coerced to make) the unwise decision to bulk out the flimsy whimsy with a great deal of bluster and action that tips the hat to his original trilogy. Whether this is fan-pandering or studio pressure is unclear but either way it’s misguided.

So while the opening movement of the film allows Jackson to stretch his comic muscles, mischievously depicting the dwarves invasion of Bag-End in all its plate-throwing glory, the tone never remains consistent for long. For every section that hits an enjoyably flighty groove, it’s soon undercut by a moment of gravel-voiced uncertainty. This is especially notable when the action relocates to Elvish Rivendell with the sole purpose of allowing the likes of Christopher Lee’s Saruman (who never appeared in the book) to utter ponderous statements that self-consciously foreshadow the Rings trilogy.

This self-consciousness arises elsewhere, including the pointless opening flashback structure that does little other than to add 10 minutes to the running time. Jackson also feels the need to throw in an expanded villainous role for Orc chieftain Azog (Manu Bennett), presumably because the film requires a greater sense of antagonism than was present in the book. The drama is pock-marked with decisions such as these, which is frustrating as the compact, entertaining seed of Tolkien’s original story is buried in there somewhere.

Not only is this first film massively overstretched – we’ve got two more coming, one assumes at the same length. Yes, The Hobbit has now been transformed into a trilogy. Was this aggressive expansion the reason why del Toro left? We’ll never know. Nor will we ever know what approach he would have brought to the material. Instead we’re faced with what’s on-screen: a highly entertaining epic that nevertheless pulls in two distinct directions between childlike jolliness (in-keeping with the book which was originally intended for a young audience) and moody portentousness.

Yet for every questionable decision Jackson makes, he gets several absolutely right. Although the band of dwarves do unfortunately blend into one, there are stand-outs to complement the brilliant lead performances from Freeman and McKellen. As the arrogant Thorin, Armitage effectively conveys a sense of imperiousness and hostility towards the endangered hobbit which softens as the film continues. Scottish actor Ken Stott is also an enjoyably warm and witty presence as white-bearded Balin.

Nowhere else in the film is there a greater synergy between actor and environment than the brilliant Andy Serkis as Gollum, whose late-arriving Riddles in the Dark sequence is genuinely tense and eerie, fraught with danger. It once again proves the actor is the leading motion-capture performer in the world.

And of course, on a technical level, the film is an astonishing marvel, in its best moments a genuinely transporting experience, sweeping viewers over mountains old and down across pine trees roaring in the night. Jackson’s formidable attention to detail in gestures both big (a trek played out against a vast landscape) and small (a redemptive conclusion between two key characters) make the film a visceral and emotional experience.

Shame about the nonsensical 48 frames per second format – it reduces much of the action to the level of the video game, especially in the climactic chase through the bowels of the Misty Mountains. It says much of Jackson’s storytelling nous that the movie remains compelling despite the plastic sheen of the frame rate.

So, a massively flawed and baggy opener to a new trilogy but one that still grips and entertains in spite of its own excesses. In spite of the over-length, the final shot of An Unexpected Journey creates a genuine sense of anticipation and excitement – roll on film two.