At last, it’s arrived. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Ian McKellen and Martin Freeman is here. But was it worth the wait?
Life is good for Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) in his comfortable and well-pointed hole in the ground. He is happy living in the Shire where he bothers no one and no one bothers him. That is until the mysterious wizard Gandalf (McKellen) appears on his doorstep one night with a group of boisterous dwarves who are bound on a quest to reclaim their ancient mountain kingdom and a golden treasure of unimaginable wealth which was stolen from them years before by the dragon Smaug and a legion of evil Orcs. Coerced into joining the band on their quest, Bilbo finds himself on a journey which will not only change his life forever, but also have far-reaching consequences for the land of Middle-earth and all those who dwell there.
A film which has been hyped to the extent this has, and based on a story which has so many avid, nigh obsessional, devotees, is never going to live up to expectations. Taking this into account however, the result isn’t bad.
You can’t go far wrong when the story which forms the basis for your film is considered to be amongst the greatest works of 20th century fantasy fiction ever written. The question here is not the story, but how it’s brought to life on the screen. Jackson’s vision of Hobbiton may not be everyones, but it has an air of believability – at least it does once the action leaves the shire. The land of the Hobbits is the film’s main downfall, as it was with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, looking more like the set of the Teletubbies or some Disney’esque fun-park, than the sleepy valley which Tolkien described in his books. Reality sets in when Gandalf and his group leave Bilbo’s home behind and take to the open road, with the story making the best use of New Zealand’s wildly varying landscape from open grassy plains to snowcapped mountain ranges. This, combined with the more fantastical environs of the Elfin homeland Rivendale, and the marvellously envisaged forest lair of the wizard Radagast the Brown, brings life to a story which encompasses every possible environment from homely and intimate to grand and awe-inspiring.
The main components of Tolkien’s story are of course the characters. It goes without saying that McKellen steals the show as the moody and mysterious Gandalf, whilst Freeman is just right as Bilbo, the frustrated and bewildered hobbit who is more than happy to live quietly in his hole in the ground and let the world pass him by, only to be drawn reluctantly into a frightening adventure with a band of gold obsessed, delinquent dwarfs. These said dwarfs however are one of the films biggest disappointments with none of them being particularly memorable. Apparently the well known British thespians Ken Stott and James Nesbitt are in there somewhere, but you’ll be hard put to figure out which of the ruffians is which as the dwarfs seem to take on the persona of one mass entity by the end.
Those who do stand out though, are in fact not in the book at all. Kate Blanchett may only be seen briefly in the film as the elfin queen Galadriel, but she makes more impact in her short appearance than many of the books original characters who take up twice the screen-time.
Like all films on this scale the real problem is that there is too much to take in. With blockbusters constantly increasing in scope, budget and sheer magnitude, each trying to outdo the most recent box-office hit, they are becoming their own worst enemies. Like visiting a museum, there is only so much that the human eye can digest before it switches into overdrive with everything it sees becoming a blur. That’s not to say that The Hobbit isn’t fun when it lasts, but in reality it’s just another big studio production which is ultimately forgettable once you leave the movie theatre.
As with the proverbial bus, you wait ages then three come at once. Well not quite at once, as it will be a year and a half before the other two instalments of The Hobbit are released and the story concludes. Is there justification in Jackson stringing Tolkien’s tale out for so long? We’ll have to wait and see.
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Runtime: 169 min
Country: USA, New Zealand