Review: The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey

This long and winding fairy tale may not be everybody’s bag, but it does bring out the genius of Tolkien in ways the Lord of the Rings could not. reviews

The-Hobbit-1024x1024Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage
Length: 169 minutes
Rating: ★★★★☆

One four hundred-odd page book. Three films, expected to be nearly three hours each. Die hard Tolkien fans were drooling, I found the idea of going through it all again a little tiring. But within the first ten minutes of The Hobbit, it was clear that Jackson sought an entirely different type of film to the Lord of The Rings.

The film starts with the hobbit and hero of our story, Bilbo Baggins, writing and narrating the story of his ‘adventures’. We are transported to the Shire and into its culture of story-telling and myth-making – “all the best stories deserve embellishment”, Gandalf says in one of his many wisdoms. The Hobbit is a fairy tale. Tolkien’s novel was written for children, and, reading it alongside the Lord of the Rings, the style is markedly different. At every turn the film gives nods, both clear and subtle towards this guiding idea.

“This is a children’s tale, a long, winding fairy tale, with all the traditions that go with it.”

Take the story as a whole. A band of dwarves embark on a mission to take back their homeland, a mountain full of gold, called the ‘Lonely Mountain’, from which they were driven by a dragon. The base story is so very different from the Fellowship who set out to destroy the item which will enable evil to stand unopposed. The heroes are not hunted by faceless Nightriders in a world where even the trees are considered enemies, but by galumphing trolls, farcical goblins and rickety bridges.

The casting also keeps the story rooted in lightheartedness. Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, although perhaps not, in my opinion, the strongest option for the role, through his mannerism (fans of The Office know them well) and script manages to give the impression that danger is all just a bit of fun. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, you never really feel that any harm will come to our heroes. Gandalf the Grey, once again played by Ian MacKellan, is perhaps the most important player in this fairy tale. As a wizard he ‘comes and goes as he pleases’, but at the moment of trouble his wisdom, and if needs be his magic, always comes to the rescue.

Fans of Tolkien would say that the man’s greatest achievement was not the story of Lord of the Rings, but the creation of a fictional world, an entire web of separate societies, as detailed in the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and the various appendices which accompany them. In The Hobbit these intricacies, each race’s ancestry, language, customs and mythology, are weaved into the story. Every action and thought are given two generations of background. The Hobbit gives an outlet for the genius of Tolkien in a way which the other films, with so much ground to cover, could not. Reviews have criticised the makers of The Hobbit for ‘stretching it out’ to three films, but I see this as their master stroke: what came across more than anything was the detail of the storyline. For example, the length enabled more information to be given on characters such as Radagast the Brown, and reasons why the hatred between Dwarves and Orcs, and Dwarves and Elves, is so deep-seated. The Hobbit fully mirrored Tolkien’s narrative style.

Visually The Hobbit is very different too. Gone are the daunting and aggressive landscapes of New Zealand, and some of the very life-like characters (particularly the Maori Uruk-Hai), to be replaced by mostly CGI. This isn’t a simple cop-out (although I couldn’t say whether there was a financial interest here), as it furthers the feeling that we’re inside a fairy tale. Rivendell is not presented as a mysterious and claustrophobic place of incomprehensible magic, but as a leafy green refuge. Middle Earth has had 400 years of peace, there’s really no need for us, or the Lady of Galadriel to fuss. The Dwarves’ enemies are also less threatening – trapped deep in the Goblins’ mountain, surrounded, and facing the Goblin leader, Gandalf needs only slash him in the belly and they escape, using a wooden plank to sled down a crevasse.

The fight scenes are perhaps an area where the film falls down. I felt the makers wished they could recreate some of the skirmish fight scenes of the Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but were restricted to producing the sort of absurd scenes you would expect in a 2002 computer game. Roger’s peevish villains in his films in 101 Dalmatians even came to mind.

The scene in the Goblins’ mountain was particularly weak. Also annoying is the feeling that the dwarves go from pillar to post hitting trouble time and time again, and each time being bailed out by Gandalf – it starts to seem a little repetitive, and certainly will do if this continues in the succeeding two films.

To enjoy The Hobbit you do have to go into the cinema ready for a long film. Get some food, a drink. I, much to the annoyance of my neighbour, kicked my shoes off. If you go in expecting the epic fight scenes to The Two Towers, or the drama of Return of the King, you will be sorely disappointed. This is a children’s tale. It is a long and winding fairy tale, with all the traditions that go with it. In this framework it is great, and will, I think, bring many who watched the Lord of the Rings as a stand-alone blockbuster into the magical world of Tolkien. And for that you can only applaud.