Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Review

by Alex Hill

I can hardly believe it's been more than a decade since I first heard of the Lord of the Rings films, saw them and was so strongly shaped by them. I have no doubt that Guillermo del Toro's version of "The Hobbit" would have been a sight unlike any other. But to have another trilogy in Middle-Earth by Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop is an unexpected comfort. Like slipping into an old coat that still fits.

Even as someone who never got around to completing the novel it's based on, I joined many in wondering just how they could conjure a film-trilogy out of that one book. Or indeed, how a story not so heavy, and aimed toward a younger audience could mesh with the often deathly serious Lord of the Rings series.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins a quest with a wizard and an impossible-to-memorize number of bearded faces. Some of the dwarves carve out memorable moments or personalities, but I gave up on feeling like I had to keep track of all of them. They become more of a force of jolly feasting and axe-swinging, a many-headed creature. Even the wise Gandalf (Ian McKellan) has trouble keeping score.

And then the Harlem Globetrotters show up.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings trilogy was its' focus on things besides human characters. It was so unlike the fantasy movies I grew up with, which all seem born from the same template. If I have to see another knight or another peasant village attacked by goblins, it will be too soon. But here were Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, Uruk-Hai and Ents! Here were different cultures with gorgeously visualized cultures and props, and they were featured in a humbling setting where human beings weren't (always) the only important part of the world.

Return of the King was my least favourite of the three, because its' plot necessitated a return to The Human Show format. I can see vanilla people for free. I paid for dwarves, damn it, and dwarves I shall have! "An Unexpected Journey" satisfied this craving for the bizarre and the old.

There's Dopey, Sneezy...

I felt an enormous sense of joy watching this movie. As long as it is, as exhausting as some of the action scenes became, I found there was a warmth to this picture that the stakes of the war of the ring would not allow. You might not expect a film with a wizard riding a sleigh through a forest pulled by bunnies to take itself seriously, but somehow it works. A scene of thirteen midgets and Merlin trying to outrun wolves ought to have been hilarious. But the story is told with such poise, and such deep respect for Thorin and Bilbo and their quest that there is genuine intensity when it looks like they're in danger. Perhaps because the darkness threatens such a whimsical core, that makes it all the more terrifying.

I was surprised at how easily I slipped back into the world provided by Peter Jackson, built on the foundation of J.R.R. Tolkien's immortal mythology. The films and books differ in places, but I think what they both achieved was the sense, through reading and watching them, that you were visiting a familiar place. It's not often that Hollywood devotes itself to creating something that feels like home. I don't know what it is about Tolkien's mythological landscape that resonates so deeply. So much literature, and indeed so much of every art-form has been inspired by the adventuresome fondness his books.

The dregs of 2012 have almost made me forget how fun a story can be, when it is told with such vigor, by a storyteller devoted to mesmerizing his audience. This is a rare magic show.

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