On Familiar Grounds
Given the phenomenal film success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy both in box office and critical terms, it's a little bit of a no brainer for the filmmakers and studios to desire adapting more of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth for the big screen, if they can work around the politics with everyone wanting a piece of the pie. It's been more than a decade since the first Peter Jackson film The Fellowship of the Ring broke new ground, with The Hobbit bounced around studios, directors even from Guillermo Del Toro back to Peter Jackson, the films being split into two, then three, the deliberation to shoot it in 3D, and on a high film rate of doubling the usual 24fps. And it's not only technical innovation but creative ones as well, closing aligning this story, by the time we get to the final part of the trilogy, to lead it right into earlier three films.
I'm pretty sure the first three films would have grown the fan base, and most would likely have dug into The Hobbit given that, compared to the other Tolkien books, it had familiar characters such as the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the principal hobbit and the tale surrounding how he obtained the One Ring from Smeagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis). But while The Hobbit was very much a children's book, compared to the other three, the film treatment, on the big screen, was largely a departure from what one would expect from reading The Hobbit, with the filmmakers being quite conscious that despite the gap in time (here set some 60 years), tinkering with the film just as how Tolkien had tinkered with the very first print of his novel, to align it with his yet-to-be-crafted masterpiece.
Peter Jackson again took some liberties with the narrative that may irk the purists around us. Some may deem it serious departures from Tolkien's intent and sequence, such as the party's capture by three Trolls amongst others, but I suppose for a film to move things along, and translate effectively from print to screen, these decisions had to be done, in addition to coming up with story-arcs that ups the ante for action, since the first third of the book didn't have much to boast of. But these changes were judiciously applied and I thought effective for the film to gather and introduce a little more background and material, to show how expansive Tolkien's universe actually was, and set to get larger when all the completed films get put together.
What also worked was Jackson's filling of the gaps each time Gandalf disappears in the story, which in the film was a reason to re-assemble thespians such as Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving to reprise their roles, in what would be another over-arching sub plot that sounds out the mysterious developments in Middle Earth revolving around a necromancer, that I'm sure many fans would appreciate additional easter eggs pointing to what's to come. Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins also makes an appearance, in what would be Peter Jackson's way to ease into The Hobbit, sowing the seeds for any viewer in future to link up everything together. With pictures already leaked on more recurring characters, one waits with bated breath how it all gets uniquely intertwined.
Otherwise, this was essentially The Fellowship of the Ring part 2, where instead of a mixed fellowship consisting of hobbits, a dwarf, an elf, a wizard and many humans, this one was predominantly dwarves led by their de-facto leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who have gathered together, mentored by Gandalf, and introduced to the 14th member of their squad, the reluctant Bilbo Baggins. In a promise of adventure, the true quest here is to recover the legendary kingdom of Erebor at the Lonely Mountain, which the dragon Smaug had massacred dwarfish ancestors and had taken over all of their land and riches. Thinking that Smaug, being unseen for years, could be dead, or time they'd get their act together to take back what's dwarf legacy, this becomes the main objective and plot of the film, in addition to common themes covered such as friendship.
The similarities between the earlier movies and this one cannot be more pronounced. Take away the deliberate, creative aspects, this felt very much like Fellowship of the Ring 2, albeit with a new team and new objective altogether. Thre's this sense of deja vu, whether be it fight scenes in the underground mines of Moria, or being pursued by Orcs and their wolf-dogs, that you'd wonder how else the filmmakers could have deviated or innovated with something new, rather than cutting too close to what many would have already be fairly familiar with. Granted that themes are universal in nature, but this translation to the screen could have been a little bit more varied - do we need another archer in a dwarf to compensate for Legolas' absence, or filler scenes such as the many sweeping shots of landscapes?
I was initially a little apprehensive with Martin Freeman being Bilbo Baggins, but I'm glad to be proven wrong through his superb performance, in perfect balance to bring out those small town principle and values and applying them to the extraordinary situations he finds himself in, making him truly the accidental hero many times over, and drawing us in to this wildcard of a team member within the company of dwarves. It doesn't matter if one is the smallest or most inexperienced, that it's what inherently inside that counts and inspires. As Gandalf had put it, his choice for the last member of the company is puzzling, but somehow Bilbo gives him courage, which gets proven time and again through the narrative, which I hope to see more of in the following films.
And of course, holding this film together like glue as we get acquainted with the ensemble, is Ian McKellen reprising his role. We get to see more of Gandalf the Grey at his element, shrewd and sly to aid his cause and motives amongst the company, serving as the strong link between two eventual trilogies. Richard Armitage provided his Thorin with natural leadership and charisma, whose development later in the story will almost definitely be heart-wrenching given where the film here had left off in his established friendship with Bilbo. As for the other dwarves, well, too many and too few screentime for most meant that it's unfortunate they remain in the background, save for a handful played by Ken Stott, Aidan Turner and Dean O'Gorman. Perhaps the other personalities will shine in the forthcoming films.
The 3D used here was exploited adequately, never letting up on opportunity to make objects propel directly into the camera/screen, especially during battle scenes. And the HFR, I suppose Peter Jackson had made a point here, and I'm sold. While the visuals take a while to get used to, sometimes proving to have a video-like, artificial quality, it really didn't make objects move in a blur, especially when the camera adopts a sweeping motion in an around landscapes, or when objects were being swung around, or quick movement of persons usually end up in a blur. Everything got captured crystal clear, now having your mind process everything that your eyes start to capture, where previously you would automatically disregard the backgrounds; now you can't. So in a way, it's sensory assault, but in a positive fashion.
Being the first film of the trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was quite expected in the way things turned out, by playing it safe, adopting a narrative structure similar to The Fellowship of the Ring in its build up, having familiar characters return to the table to provide that level of comfort for audiences returning to Middle Earth, before and hopefully, finding its feet and tangent off on its own as we got left with the usual cliffhanger involving gazing into the horizon, promising a lot more. The Misty Mountains song, already lyric by Tolkien himself in the book, will prep you with goosebumps each time it's sung, by the dwarves or during the end credits, or when it serves as the broad theme in the soundtrack, lending prominence to the objective charted out for the story.