The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012, dir. Peter Jackson, New Line / Wingnut / MGM.
Reviewed by Marie Marshall
Film poster presumed (c) MGM, reproduced under ‘fair use’.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – or, as I have been calling it lately, Lord of the Rings: The Phantom Menace. Those of you familiar with prequels will appreciate what I’m driving at. There are problems with making prequels, and this film suffers from them all. Let me say straight away that it is nonetheless watchable. There are some good reasons for going to see it.
Good reason No.1 – you have a crush on Cate Blanchett or Hugo Weaver (and who could possibly blame you!).
Good reason No.2 – you are a Tolkie (Tolkeenie?) and a Middle-Earth completist, and I mean the kind of person who has even downloaded a hooky copy of the Air New Zealand in-flight safety video. In which case how could you miss this film!
Good reason No.3 – you are a fan of British and British-based actors in general, in which case this film is an absolute feast for you. You will sit there saying things like, “Hey – isn’t that Mitchell out of Being Human? Isn’t that the bloke who played Rebus?” Although if you can actually spot Benedict Cumberbatch and Barry Humphries you deserve a prize.
And that’s about it. On that last point, it does fare better than the Harry Potter canon in which the cream of British acting hammed their way to the bank, and who could blame them*. The acting quality is much better. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins almost exactly as he played Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, but he is believable as a young Ian Holm**. Sylvester McCoy is a thoroughly eccentric Radagast, and again fans will recall his equally eccentric tour of duty as the eponymous Dr Who, so it’s lovely to see him at his craft again.
However, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does suffer all the ills of a prequel. There is no surprise, no delight in discovering the Shire, Rivendell, and the rest of Middle Earth. We are already familiar with it in the wonderful, broad sweep of the LOTR trilogy, with the musical tropes, and so they appear tired rather than fresh. There is no shock in seeing an orc or a troll for the first time, and in fact there is something tame about the trolls, which takes me on to the next problem.
The Hobbit, the novel on which this film is based, is very different in tone, in target readership, in almost every way from Lord of the Rings. It is very brief, shorter than any one of the three parts of Lord of the Rings, and written with young readers in mind. The three trolls that Bilbo encounters in the book are much less like the hulking, mindless monsters in the film trilogy, more bucolic, calling each other Tom, Bill, and Bert. The new film tries to bridge that gap, and damn near fails. The task is like binding two metal strips together, each of which expands with heat at a different rate, and holding them over a flame. This shows up very clearly in the scene with the trolls round their camp fire. They look sufficiently like the mindless trolls from the trilogy, but smaller, more like a trio of obese skinheads. This is a symptom of trying to marry very different books into a single experience – it doesn’t quite work.
The brevity of the book suggests to me that it could easily have been made into a single film, maybe even a stand-alone film. Stretching it out into two feature-length films is a mistake. As a result, and to provide extra action and spectacle, the film-makers have added elements which were not in the book. Unfortunately that complicates and obscures the plot. There is, for example, a back-story and sub-plot concerning Thorin and a one-handed, albino orc-warrior. It’s padding. Galadriel, Radagast, and Saruman do not appear in the book, but they do make appearances in the film. Sylvester McCoy’s cameo is, as I have said, eccentric, charmingly silly. Christopher Lee, on the other hand, plays Saruman entirely seated; he seems, as he is, much older than he did playing the same part supposedly many years into the future. The book glosses over the conflict between the shadowy ‘Necromancer’ (‘Sauron’ in Lord of the Rings) and implies that Gandalf’s order of wizards, including Radagast and Saruman we must assume, fought as one against this menace. However, the film-makers couldn’t resist giving us a disingenuously proleptic glimpse of ‘Saruman the Bad’. Again, padding, and I’m afraid the stuffing is falling out of it.
Another cameo appearance that simply doesn’t work: Elijah Wood, in real life, looks a good ten years older than he did when he first appeared as Frodo. Then he was cute, now no amount of soft focus can hide the fact that his face has matured. The result is that we are treated to seeing Frodo supposedly several years younger but obviously not. No, doesn’t work, bad padding again.
Maybe it is because I am more used to seeing Lord of the Rings in home DVD format, but I also felt that there was something lacking in the film quality, some lack of definition or clarity. It seems murkier than the trilogy. The film ends at a half-way point in the novel, leaving room for the next film to bridge the gap to Lord of the Rings. I do not know what elements of the story will be left out of No.2 (maybe the part played by Beorn the Skin-changer) nor what will be grafted in (presumably the conflict with the Necromancer and a resolution of Thorin’s feud with the pale orc), but I have my worries.
There are a few good moments of comedy in the film, however, mainly surrounding Thorin’s band of dwarves, who draw as much from Terry Pratchett as they do from Tolkien. I won’t spoil it for you, but watch out for the line, “That could have been worse.” Also it is available in 3D at the cinema, which is still a sufficiently new technology to be enjoyable, so it is worth seeing before you become jaded with the effect.
Overall I think it’s worth paying for a cinema ticket nevertheless (go for a cheap matinee), and worth buying the DVD after it has been out for a few months and the price has come down a little. You could iron to it. If I were to give the Lord of the Rings trilogy five stars, I would award this three. Not bad, Mr Jackson, but you could do much better.
*There were some golden moments in the Harry Potter films too, though if you haven’t seen any of them, take my advice and only see the ones in which Jason Isaacs appears – he is the only cast member who doesn’t ham it up, and as a result he is utterly, chillingly convincing – and the one in which Hermione decks Draco Malfoy with a right hook. Shout ‘Expelliarmus’ all you like, that was the most magical moment in all that series of films.
**Except maybe to those of us old enough to remember the young Ian Holm.