Eleven years ago, almost to the day, a film was released in cinemas that would take the world by storm. Based on the novels that practically invented a genre, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was the first instalment in Peter Jackson’s incredibly ambitious epic fantasy trilogy.
With three films came 17 Academy Awards, over $3 billion dollars and international critical recognition as being one of the greatest movie trilogies ever made. Fast forward to December 2012, and the first film in the prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is released.
Starring Martin Freeman as the eponymous hobbit Bilbo Baggins, reluctantly dragged on a quest by thirteen dwarves and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), An Unexpected Journey is based on the 1937 novel by JRR Tolkien which was originally written for his children. The most important thing to establish is The Hobbit is exactly that: a story for children.
Peter Jackson has done a passionate job of translating the story to the screen, but whether it was a successful job is another matter. The film takes some liberties – well, a lot of liberties – when it comes to padding out the 310 page novel into a three hour movie. Much of the plot was taken from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings and patched together, including scenes featuring Saruman, Galadriel, Radagast the Brown and the Necromancer. Some of these felt like they should have spent more time in the cutting room, but the world is engaging enough that spending a long time with its characters is rarely a chore.
After the detailed, sprawling epic that was The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit should have been a smaller affair. Instead the whopping $150 million budget was spent on garish visual effects and setpieces that, while visually impressive, did not match the tone or style of The Lord of the Rings in the slightest. It is understandable considering the target age and the fact The Hobbit is ultimately a separate story to The Lord of the Rings, but I couldn’t help but think how goofy and silly many of the scenes were in comparison to the sombre, and in many places terrifying, Lord of the Rings. The orcs and goblins in the original trilogy were rarely treated seriously, but compared to the bizarre comedy of the Goblin King in The Hobbit, they are the stuff of nightmares.
Perhaps this is due to the pen of Guillermo del Toro, who was originally attached to direct, but due to financial and timing concerns, decided to leave to film Pacific Rim instead. He retains his screenplay credit, which may account for the tonal change from The Lord of the Rings. In fact, when he was originally planning to direct, he stated that:
“The first film will stand on its own and the second will be a transition and fusion with Peter’s world. I plan to change and expand the visuals from Peter’s and I know the world can be portrayed in a different way. Different is better for the first one. For the second, I have the responsibility of finding a slow progression and mimicking the style of Peter.”
Although his version of the film was not made, it is clear that much of his contribution is present here, and many of the overly fantastical, gothic and generally fairy tale-like elements have a very strong del Toro vibe to them. Other than that, much of the original Lord of the Rings team are back here, including Jackson’s writing and producing partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh; cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and composer Howard Shore.
Technology has moved on considerably since the early 2000s, and after Jackson’s work on Tintin last year it is evident how much the film has been influenced by it. The characteristic Weta ‘bigatures’ used in The Lord of the Rings have been replaced by (admittedly beautiful) CG models, and the audience are often following the camera high and low, swooping through caverns, tunnels, bridges and stunning scenery. When viewed in IMAX 3D the result is a dizzying but exhilarating experience, although much of the fluid and well orchestrated action seems overwhelming and blurred at times.
A little too well orchestrated, perhaps – the CG stunts and cartoony movements almost had me longing for the hard-hitting, gritty fight scenes in The Lord of the Rings. Whereas before we experienced good old-fashioned sword fighting, with stuntmen wailing on hordes of padded extras, we now get clean, crisp and unnatural movements of digital models gliding and sliding in a totally unrealistic and unthreatening fashion. The sword impacts are glossed over and the blood is virtually nonexistent – again, possibly a by-product of the target audience.
It may well be that over the course of the three films the tone will darken, and the style shift to become more like the Middle-Earth we are used to. In many cases, the comedy and the visual effects made me wish for the dirt, mud and blood of the original trilogy, but it is also relieving to see Jackson willing to try new things and not fall into old habits.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not The Lord of the Rings. As soon as the comparisons begin, it is clear the magic that made the originals so memorable is not quite present. But disregard The Lord of the Rings and you are still left with a fine piece of work, with beautiful visuals, music and performances from a very strong cast, including Andy Serkis who returns to once again steal every scene as Gollum. Peter Jackson’s latest incarnation of Middle-Earth is not quite as we remember it, but still well worth the trip. This is a movie made by a passionate group of people who are artists, storytellers, but above all, dedicated fans.