Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Ken Stott, Richard Armitage, Sylvester McCoy, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Barry Humphries
Release date Out now
Unassuming, home-loving Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is taken on a quest by wizard Gandalf (McKellen) and a horde of Dwarves to reclaim their ancient mountain kingdom from a fierce dragon…
And so it begins… and you’ll have to wait a year for the middle and two years for the conclusion. Peter Jackson’s bloated version of Tolkien’s slimline first voyage to Middle-earth in The Hobbit looks set to become one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Rather cynically, perhaps, Jackson and the studios involved have inflated Tolkien’s slight tale to epic The Lord of the Rings proportions in order to squeeze as much box office as possible from their remaining trips to Middle-earth. It is tempting to think that a five-film version of The Silmarillion might follow.
Having said that, there is some logic in Jackson’s approach. Casual cinema-goers are expecting a movie prequel to The Lord of the Rings, and they’re not as hung up on the detail of what was and what wasn’t in the original books as Tolkien fans might be. Viewed from that angle, the choice to boost every possible opportunity for a major battle scene makes sense. Even Bilbo’s confrontation with the Trolls becomes an all-out ruck between the Dwarves, the Hobbit and the trio of cretinous creatures.
Front-loaded with an all action prologue (the dragon Smaug’s initial attack on the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor), this first third of The Hobbit trilogy is a little slow to get underway, with interminable scenes of Gandalf and the Dwarves descending upon Bilbo’s Hobbiton home (clearly the kind of thing that might usually have been trimmed for cinema release and then put back in to an Extended Cut DVD—wonder if there’s anything left for The Hobbit trilogy to be given the Extended Cut treatment?).
There’s the spine of a chase/hunt narrative grafted onto Tolkien’s tale, with Manu Bennett’s Orc chief Azog built up from a minor character into the book into a major antagonist and enemy for the Dwarf leader. Like the 48 frames-per-second filming, the 3D presentation and the IMAX release, these embellishments are unnecessary frills that bloat an otherwise simple tale.
Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is exactly as you might imagine: Tim from The Office adrift in Middle-earth. Ian McKellen delivers as a slightly younger Gandalf the Grey. However, the most surprising performances come from Ken Stott as older Dwarf Balin and Sylvester McCoy as bird-shit covered wizard Radagast (who disappears without notice during the film, but is back in part two). Richard Armitage is solid as Dwarf chief Thorin Oakenshield, while the other Dwarves largely escape notice, except for the fat ginger one, and the young one (played by Being Human‘s Aidan Turner), while James Nesbitt’s Bofur is just annoying. Barry Humphries contributes a great vocal performance as the grotesque Goblin King.
Jackson is a dab hand at spectacle, and there’s as much swooping camera work and crazy action as you could want, even when the storyline is really too thin to support it all. Retro-fitted into the narrative are cameos from The Lord of the Rings characters like Saruman, Galadriel, and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond. He even finds a place for older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) in a wrap-around narration. This plays to the casual audience, but does feel shoe-horned in if you know your Tolkien.
Despite the spectacle, the best scene is a simple one, at least in terms of the writing. Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum (looking even more like Andy Serkis than ever) is the centre point of the story that allowed Tolkien to spin-off The Lord of the Rings. Here it is a triumph for the motion capture technology Jackson and Serkis have pioneered, and it has far more dramatic impact than any number of digitally animated Goblins falling to their doom.
Verdict: Overlong, and only part of the story, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features The Lord of the Rings spectacle grafted onto a far slighter tale. 7/10
Brian J. Robb