Fear not. ‘The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey’ does not suffer from the same tragedy that befell Star Wars fans the world over when they had to endure the horrifically awful ‘The Phantom Menace’.
‘The Phantom Menace’ did for Star Wars devotees what Country Life butter and Johnny Rotten did for The Sex Pistols. As Simon Pegg says in the inspired sitcom ‘Spaced’: “Jar Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like f**king Shaft!”
Instead, Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth, is alive and well and at 48 frames per second it has become even more wondrous, beautiful and wild.
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy will be ten years-old next year and there can be no doubting his craft when it comes to bringing places like the Shire, Moria and Erebor to life.
The Hobbit was written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937 and at just over 280 pages it’s largely viewed as more of a children’s bedtime story than the magical exploration of good versus evil that we get from the three Lord of the Rings novels.
The Lord of the Rings is so detailed and so long that Jackson was forced to leave entire sequences out. The opposite can be said for ‘An Unexpected Journey’. It’s a stand alone book, much shorter and I feared that in order to stretch the story over three films, Jackson would be forced to pad things out.
For most of the time, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ is seamless and at just under three hours long, it never feels over-worked or laboured.
Many feel that the decision to stretch the quest of Bilbo Baggins over three movies was simply Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Newline Cinema cashing in on the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whilst ‘An Unexpected Journey’ does not dispel such suspicions it sets the benchmark at which the next two films should aim. Should ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ and ‘There and Back Again’ be as satisfying as the first instalment ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy will be a success but should they turn out to be reliant on a narrative outside of the novel’s scope it will be rejected en masse by the fans. Only time will tell.
‘The Hobbit’ is about how Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) assists a band of dwarves and Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen - ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘X-Men’) to reclaim their homeland of Erebor from the last great dragon, Smaug.
Martin Freeman (‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘The Office’ and ‘Sherlock’) is outstanding as Bilbo Baggins. Freeman succeeds where Elijah Wood failed in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Wood’s Frodo was a moaning wreck of a character but Freeman’s Bilbo is quite the opposite.
Freeman is, at the start of the film, brilliantly apathetic, in the middle, convincingly scared and by the end, believably brave.
The film’s stand-out scene is when Bilbo comes face to face with Gollum in the depths of a mountain and is forced to play the murderous creature at a game of riddles in the dark. It’s a menacing, gripping and hilariously funny sequence which is polished off brilliantly by the magnificence of Andy Serkis’ Gollum.
There are 12 dwarves in total but only Thorin (Richard Armitage), Dwalin - (Graham McTavish), Kili (Aiden Turner), Balin (Ken Stott) and Bofur (James Nesbitt) get any real screen time worth talking about.
Armitage is brilliant as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield and Stott’s Balin is a welcome surprise and the fact that Nesbitt’s Bofur comes with a Castlerock accent is just brilliant.
Jackson deviates away from the narrative of Tolkien’s novel several times, some of which helps to strengthen the film’s feel whilst others, namely, the introduction of Radagast the Brown played by former ‘Dr. Who’ Sylvester McCoy, are completely unnecessary.
Jackson also chooses to bring some of the smaller characters from the novel more to life.
In Tolkien’s book, the great white Orc, Azog the Defiler is completely forgettable but in the film he is expanded upon and played by Manu Bennett.
Azog is intent on hunting down the ‘Dwarf-scum’ before they reach the lost kingdom of Erebor and his constant chasing of the dwarves gives ‘An Unexpected Journey’ a real cat and mouse feel.
Jackson’s sequel is every bit as satisfying as any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the decision to cast Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is inspired. The first in the new Middle-earth trilogy has been a long time coming but it’s been worth wait.
VERDICT: 4/5 - Following in the footsteps of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ was always going to struggle to rekindle the magic of ten years ago. Not only does it work on so many levels, director Peter Jackson, succeeds in making Middle-earth look even more beautiful, Martin Freeman is absolutely brilliant as Bilbo and it’s certainly the dwarves make it the most funny and child friendly of all the Tolkien inspired films.