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“All good stories deserve embellishment,” says Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) before the latter has even left the snug, leathery comfort of his Bag End armchair and took on his An Unexpected Journey.
There is no way this line, a pithy conclusion to a tall tale of Bilbo’s Tookish grandfather (beheads goblin, invents golf), could have been written unknowingly. The Hobbit is a good story. And embellishment, controversially for some, has been the rule of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro’s movie adaptation — both narratively (An Unexpected Journey is now a trilogy starter instead of part one of two) and visually; this sunnier, 60-years-younger Middle-earth was digitally filmed at double the frame rate of the three earlier films which concerned this mythic realm’s difficult autumn years.
To start with, the first form of embellishment is to instantly address the concern that Jackson and company’s Hobbit may be a painful inflation of a slim, bedtime storybook, in contrast to The Lord Of The Rings’ leaner interpretation of a vast fantasy-historical classic. Team Jackson seeks outside the book’s narrative (which, while swifter than Rings, is still rich in detail and packed with incident) to the Tolkienverse yonder, and unapologetically treats The Hobbit as a prequel in which the comeback of Sauron The Deceiver is foreshadowed ominously.
However, the cutaways to guano-faced born-wizard Radagast The Brown (Sylvester McCoy) nursing hedgehogs, going boss-eyed and rabbit-sledging to creepy ruined forts do feel of limited relevance to the main adventure. Beyond Gandalf expressing to a sceptical Saruman (Christopher Lee) his fear that dwarf economy-hoarding wyrm Smaug could come into play as a fiery WMD for “the enemy”, the threads concerning the White Council, the Necromancer and aforementioned fort Dol Guldur— all direct prequel material — have yet to be firmly twined with Bilbo’s relatively modest adventure. He may find the One Ring here, but for now its connection to Sauron is known only by us and Howard Shore’s string section.
Even so, this particular trip to a mountain has been cleverly remoulded — the final destination is always a mountain, this one Lonely rather than Doomed. It is well-paced, bringing in chief antagonist Azog (Manu Bennett), the albino orc-lord barely in the book, who from the start is hunting the “dwarf scum”, soon giving the quest frantic chase movie impetus. Existing set-pieces have been thoughtfully redrafted, so don’t expect the encounter with the trolls (a cockney Three Stooges) to play out as it does in the novel.
And new sequences have been added, such as a skirmish with warg-mounted orcs on Rivendell’s borders. The Goblin Town diversion comes replete with Jacksonian wonderful notes, including a neat swinging gantry joke that references King Kong — even though he doesn’t let these set-pieces breathe as freely as those in either Rings or Kong.
While it’s good to see Gandalf get stuck in like never before, this is no Moria. And in spite of the running time, there is still the frequent sense that Jackson is rushing, underpinned by the fact that, for all their elaborate individuality, the dwarves stay somewhat amorphous, with only Thorin (a brilliant Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Fili/Kili (Dean O’Gorman/Aidan Turner) given any special treatment.
Still, thanks to an Ian Holm-presented prologue, we’re in no doubt as to the significance of their mission. This isn’t just a treasure hunt: this is a desperate gambit to reclaim a homeland for a people who have suffered a generation of bitter diaspora. There is an appeal to the way Tolkien’s novel starts small, seemingly trivial — Bilbo the unwilling burglar off on a perilous jaunt — then rises out into something so big that five armies roll up to the ultimate fracas.
But it is reasonable to Jackson’s cinematic rendition of Middle-earth that we should quickly understand Thorin’s position (part Aragorn, part Boromir) in its heavy narrative history. This comes not only through the prologue, in which we watch the full glory of Erebor and its nuking by malevolent bat-lizard Smaug (of whom there are glimpses), but also an amazing flashback to Thorin’s hard-fought, albeit temporary, victory over Azog on the slopes outside Moria.
One question raised by the book is: why precisely did Bilbo, a homely fellow and appreciator of simple comforts, agree to head off into such danger? And why didn’t he bail when the going got extreme? These are ingeniously addressed, and in fact form the arc of An Unexpected Journey. The Hobbit Episode I is the story of how Bilbo commits to adventure, how he realises his motive. And Team Jackson’s answer is gracefully simple, a fine-brushed masterstroke of scripting: the beast who just wants to return home learns that what he’s doing here is helping these homeless dwarves reclaim theirs.
It’s a concept sold flawlessly by Martin Freeman, perfect casting for the fusty halfling. There really is no other character like Bilbo in Tolkien’s chronicles, and he is perhaps this franchise’s most impressive: a proper, decent, everyday kind of chap (if a little on the conservative side) whose resourcefulness is drawn from a deep well of inner strength.
Not as beleaguered as Frodo, nor as acquiescent as Samwise, nor as comical as Merry and/or Pippin. “I’m not a hero or a warrior,” Bilbo asserts. He’s us. And Freeman encapsulates that throughout, without mugging or winking. His Bilbo does take his predicament seriously, and while this is the jauntiest — and sometimes silliest, at times funniest, definitely the most child-friendly — Middle-earth film yet, Freeman remains its emotional lodestone.
The most impressive moment arrives during the Riddles In The Dark incident, which briefly brings back Andy Serkis’ Gollum, the other probably strongest character in the series. It is a joy and a thrill to once more see mo-cap master Serkis owning the role, and to have the celebrated encounter brilliantly re-envisioned through the prism of the Sméagol/Gollum split personality.
Still, the real punch of poignancy comes at that most pivotal of moments: when Bilbo, invisibly standing over Gollum with sword at his throat, turns mercy. Jackson holds on Freeman’s face. This isn’t just Tim-from-The Office or Watson in pointy ears, but an actor at the height of his prowess finding every layer to a character it now seems he was born to play.
So what, finally, of that other embellishment, the history-making visual treatment? 48 frames per second is, as they say, something else. And you can take that both ways. On the one hand, the sharpness of detail is almost overwhelming, whether you’re seeing the seam down the back of Gandalf’s hat, or repulsed by the scabby goitre dangling from the Great Goblin’s (Barry Humphries) ugly distended face.
On the other hand, there’s something about the lack of grain and motion blur that strangely makes An Unexpected Journey film feel less epic — it’s so sudden and intimate that the distance between seat and screen is all but removed. This may make you feel more thrillingly part of the action, or it may diminish the spectacle and unflatteringly highlight An Unexpected Journey film’s more set-bound nature. Something to bear in mind when deciding if you’re going to seek out the upgraded experience.
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