A marvel of filmmaking wizardry and engrossing adventure storytelling, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey marks another triumph by director Peter Jackson who once again takes J.R. Tolkien’s words and brings them to life with skilful, passionate expertise.
The trek back to Middle Earth has been a bumpy one for Jackson. Financial woes (courtesy of bankrupt studio MGM), the departure of director Guillermo del Toro (a heaven send) and an industrial dispute that threatened to shut down production, marred what should have been a comfortable return to the world of Tolkien. After all, the last time Jackson gave as a Tolkien adventure with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King it slayed the competition with 13 Oscar wins.
The word “return” is important, since that is what The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features plenty of. Return has Jackson to the works that made him. Return did many of The Lord of the Rings alumni such as cast members Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan and Hugo Weaving, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and composter Howard Shore. And return does the atmospheric, emotive, sweeping magic that made The Lord of the Rings series such a success, with The Hobbit… sitting comfortably alongside it.
Return too does the character of adventuring Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (previously played by Ian Holm). The Hobbit… – of course – proceeds The Lord of the Rings and here a younger Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman, an actor of natural comedic talent and endearing charm who perfectly portrays the bewildering naivety that is Bilbo, as he’s recruited by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan reprising his Oscar nominated role) to join a rag-tag group of Dwarves on a quest to reclaim their kingdom and its riches from a fierce dragon.
It is the Dwarves plight that serves as the films momentum. A race in exodus, these brave, stubborn and always hungry souls are an endearing species in a world filled with all manner of creatures, some so inherently evil and monstrous that parents thinking of bringing their kids to a screening should prepare themselves to face a week of nightmares.
Once again Jackson uses his home of New Zealand to stand in as Middle Earth. When combined with the utilisation of 48 frames per second photography (double that of the standard for those who don’t know), and the always excellent visual effects and production designs of Weta Digital and Weta Workshop (respectively), and what is presented is a visually masterful cinematic experience, albeit hard to take in at first, but gradually framing itself into a film that sweeps you up and takes you for a ride.
Just as vital is the strength found in its characters and those who play them. Jackson has been lambasted by critics for the length (clocking in at almost 2 hours & 30 min) and pacing of The Hobbit…, yet for a film filled with so many characters, scenarios and agendas (a by-product of Tolkien’s writing) every minute counts and it shows in the feelings these characters evoke. The charismatic naturalism of Freeman’s Bilbo brings with it compassion, and the commanding screen presence and heroic stoic of Richard Armitage’s Dwarf king Thorin conjures a confidence in his ability to lead a persecuted and exiled people back to a once proud prominence.
The majority of 2012’s blockbusters (The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall) have upped the ante by combining engrossing characters with awe-inspiring spectacle. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is one of the year’s best at doing just that.