The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Film Review

The Hobbit

As Frodo and Bilbo Baggins prepare for a party Bilbo reminisces about an adventure from his past. Sixty years previously Bilbo was reluctantly recruited by the wizard Gandalf to join a troupe of dwarves on a journey to reclaim their kingdom from the fearsome dragon Smaug. The hobbit and dwarves set off for their destination after some partying (and two songs), encounter trolls, orcs, elves, and goblins along the way and after 169 minutes have yet to even arrive.

That’s right. In a film adaptation of a book subtitled There and Back Again this first film of three compiling to make The Hobbit doesn’t manage to complete the “There” let alone the “and Back Again“. It’s a debate I continue to have with myself as to whether films in a trilogy should be able to stand on their own as three single films rather than having to coexist to remain coherent. An Unexpected Journey is very much a set-up followed by some set pieces rather than a film in its own right. As the credits rolled on what had been an enjoyable film (more of that shortly) I couldn’t help but feel slightly cheated that I would have to wait another 12 months before I got to even see them arrive at their destination.

All that aside An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable film. It looks gorgeous and is filled with plenty of laughs, epic landscapes, and more fights than you can shake an oversized wizard’s staff at. What An Unexpected Journey is not is in any way unexpected. There are no surprises. The whole event felt incredibly familiar as it maintained the style and tone of The Lord of the Rings. Watching a hobbit set off on an epic quest surrounded by a gang of strangers who do a lot of walking occasionally interrupted by fights along the way and flashbacks to large battles starts to feel like deja vu on an unprecedented scale. An Unexpected Journey is more Delia Smith than Heston Blumenthal; you get what you expect and enjoy it but at no point is your breath taken away.

The cast are all perfectly functional and highly recognisable. Anyone who has sufficient years of UK TV watching behind them will spend the 2.82 hours trying to place the familiar faces behind dwarf prosthetics. Ian McKellen remains fantastic as Gandalf and Martin Freeman reprises his reluctant traveller persona from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Luckily Freeman perfectly fits the character of Bilbo so there was no need for him to get wildly experimental and I couldn’t imagine a more hobbity performance.

Now how about the 3D and the 48 frames per second I hear you nerds ask? As a bit of a 3D-phobic let it be taken as a huge compliment when I describe the 3D as unobtrusive. It added little to the action sequences and at times made any background CGI a little flat but it didn’t make any images double up or blur. In static shots where my eyes had a chance to absorb all the dimensions/frames/pixels/whatever the image was so perfectly realised that it looked genuinely real. A shot of Bilbo sitting at his desk writing was so well captured that I felt I could have walked up and knocked over his ink well. Whether you want such realism in a fantasy film is another debate – one I will slyly run away from at this point. The film looked great and my only complaint would be that wearing glasses over my glasses can get tiresome as a film enters its third hour.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is going to be a real thrill for any fan of Lord of the Rings simply because it so closely resembles its predecessors. On the same note however anyone who would rather never set foot in Middle Earth again is not going to find themselves changing their mind with this outing of more of the same. An Unexpected Journey is a lot of fun and stands out as a rare fantasy epic in a year where superheroes trying to stick to gritty realism have dominated. I look forward to the next two sequels both because I liked this outing but also because it didn’t contain enough of a story to suffice.

P.S. Gollum has never looked better.

Spotlight On – Six Degrees of Separation

Today I am shining the spotlight on an old film and the recent revival of the play it was based on, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, and Kevin Bacon isn’t going to be mentioned once. It is about to get cultured up in here.

Both play and film are about an upper class couple in New York whose evening is interrupted by a young man claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son. The arrival of this character disrupts their lives and the lives of those they know, the script exploring the idea of family and of how people are connected.

The film does not differ greatly from the play but for moving scenes to various locations and the removal of some dialogue. The biggest different I could identify was the pace, the film coming in a full twenty minutes longer with very little additional material. While the play charges forward at a pace that forces you to pay attention, and try to keep up with the wonderful rhythm of the dialogue, the film lingers a little longer allowing you to more easily take in what is being said.

I preferred the way the play just kept moving and, as can happen when a play is transferred directly to film, found some of the dialogue sounded odd when spoken on film which is less forgiving of the hyper-reality allowed onstage. There is no denying this is a play first and foremost and so more suited to that format. That said the acting in both was brilliant and I’m sure I’ve never seen Will Smith turn in such an impressive performance, but then I’ve never seen Ali. Smith is however put to shame by the relative newcomer Obi Abili who has made the role his own.

The script has barely aged a day in the twenty years since being written and this year’s revival, while at just ninety minutes is a succinct and enjoyable trip to theatre. Obviously not everyone can go and see the play but the film is brilliant in it’s own way; Stockard Channing, Ian McKellen and Donald Sutherland can’t be wrong.

Six Degrees of Separation is on at The Old Vic until 3rd April 2010 and the film is available from amazon.co.uk on DVD.

And now a bit where I ramble:

The title of the play comes from the well known theory that everyone is separated by only six degrees of separation, a theory that comes into play when you look at the cast of the film and play. The female lead in the film Stockard Channing starred in the 2007 film Sparkle with both Lesley Manville and Anthony Head who play the female lead and her husband in the play. Also Donald Sutherland both play the same character and have both taken on the role of watcher in different incarnations of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ian McKellan and Ian Redford also play the same character and both have had extended stints on Coronation Street. If we’re going to get really tedious then J. J. Abrams went on from his small role in the film to produce the short lived TV series Six Degrees based on this very theory.