Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Trailer #1 - more reflective version.
Trailer #2 - more gung-ho version.

This afternoon Clare and I went to Vue Exeter to see Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

It was hard to imagine how The Hobbit, a much shorter work than The Lord of The Rings, could be stretched to a film trilogy. But it managed the first part effortlessly, while followed the book very faithfully, from Bilbo's recruitment as a "burglar" for a party of dwarves on a quest to regain their home, through to the passage though the Misty Mountains and Bilbo's finding of the Ring. It even included Tolkien's songs, without their coming across as obtrusive musical set-pieces.

The film starts with a framing device of Bilbo writing the story on the eve of his departure party at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, then a deal of backstory of how the dwarves were driven from their subterranean kingdom by the dragon Smaug. Other areas for expansion included scenes with the nature wizard Radagast (only briefly mentioned in The Hobbit); the party being caught up in a mountain battle between the again briefly-mentioned stone giants; and a continuing thread deriving from the enmity between Thorin, the dwarves' leader, and Azog, the orc chieftain who killed his father.

The story is also very neatly framed as a precursor to the events of The Lord of the Rings. In the book, there's no motivation for Gandalf's choice of Bilbo as a participant. The film, however, suggests strongly that Gandalf is working from some intuition or foreknowledge of the importance of Bilbo and Frodo in the War of the Ring decades later. Saruman's presence, fairly unimportant in the book, also acquires darker significance in the light of later events in The Lord of the Rings.

Martin Freeman is an excellent choice as the younger Bilbo, and the dwarves (various largely unrecognisable character actors including Ken Stott and James Nesbit) catch the right balance between humor, pathos and nobility.

The effects, as usual, can't be faulted. This was the first time I'd seen a 3D film since decades back, when I saw one using a creaky red-blue system, but I was blown away by the Real3D system that uses circularly-polarised frames. It's done with a great deal more subtlety than the old-style 3D films that were obsessed with thrusting objects at you out of the screen. It's no mere gimmick, adding intimacy to indoor scenes, and vast depth to landscapes and other vistas.

Overall, we were both delighted with it, and recommend it, with the proviso that Clare found it somewhat over-padded with battle scenes.

Addendum: I do slightly fear where it'll go from here, though. I re-read The Hobbit today. IIt's a 271-page book. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes us up to page 102; the death of the dragon Smaug, another natural break, is on page 225; and the rest, including the Battle of the Five Armies, occupies only the remaining 50 pages. I hope - and I agree with Clare - that we're not going to get all the interesting stuff in the first two segments, with the third a padded-out battlefest.

- Ray

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