Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

As has probably become painfully obvious by now, I am something of a fantasy junky. And like most fantasy fans of my generation, I can trace the beginnings of this - let's call it fondness to avoid the (probably more accurate) word obsession - to a few very good books I read as a teen. There was the obvious Harry Potter series, Ursula K. Leguin Tales of Earthsea, some Douglas Adams and some Narnia and a lot of Philip Pullman, but also, and maybe most importantly Tolkien. 

The thing about Middle Earth is that it is a world that never seems to end - I read Lord of the Rings a couple of years before the movies came out, and then suddenly there were all those other books set up in this amazing world, and I simply had to read them all - The Silmarilion, Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit, to name a few. So, in short: I blame Tolkien.

Much of the hype was due to the success of Peter Jackson's trilogy, and it was well deserved. High Fantasy is a difficult genre, often long, with so many characters you can't keep them straight (cf- the hilarious cheat sheet for the Dwarves of Thorin's Company!) and meandering plots that take thousands of pages to get to the point, in language that is not always very straightforward. If you are an impatient reader, or have a short attention span, it can get tiring and confusing very quickly, and people just give up. So, good movies, that are faithful to the books they are based on, is a great compromise, a perfect way to delve into this new world and maybe grab the attention of people. Unlike some other die-hard fans, I am not at all opposed to movie adaptations of books I like (even if I have been disappointed before *cough* Eragon *cough*) and the Hobbit was just the same - I was there on opening night.

So, ten years after giving us the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson comes back with three new films that tell the tale of how Bilbo Baggins, Frodo's uncle, was hired as a burglar in Thorin Oakshield's Company, and set out on a quest to reclaim Eresbor, the last great dwarf kingdom of Middle Earth, from the dragon Smaug. The story is set 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings, and is a prequel to that story, setting the scene from some very important plot points.

As always with Peter Jackson, the cast is superb:

Martin Freeman .......... Young Bilbo Baggins
Ian McKellan .............. Gandalf the Grey
Richard Armitage ....... Thorin Oakshield
Ken Stott .................... Balin
Aidan Turner .............. Kili
Dean O'Gorman ......... Fili
Hugo Weaving .......... Lord Elrond
Cate Blanchett ........... Lady Galadriel
Christopher Lee ......... Saruman the White
Sylvester McCoy........ Radagast the Brown
Andy Serkis ............... Gollum

I don't think I have seen such a perfect fit as Armitage in the role of Thorin in a long time - the voice, the bearing,  the frown, everything fits perfectly. Kili and Fili are delightful, and really, all the company as a group have great chemistry (even if I have a soft spot for Kili and his bow). The opening scenes in Bilbo's house are truly terrific - between the comedy of the kitchen raid, and the aching melancholy of the dwarves singing Mysty Mountain  in front of the fire - they set the tone for the quest perfectly.

The rest of the film continues much as a quest would - there are amazing location shots, and very good fight scenes (the running battle against the Goblins under the mountain is particularly good). The plot advances at a brisk pace, with new enemies and old foes appearing at regular intervals. 

Don't take this the wrong way - the film was great. Even knowing what was going to happen in advance (and isn't that a bittersweet thing!) I was still bitting my nails off when Thorin jumped from his tree to confront Azog, and cheering Bilbo when he followed (on a side note, isn't Bilbo a much more engaging hero than Frodo? I certainly think so!). It was a long movie, and some scenes dragged a bit but most did not. In fact the only thing I found really longwinded was the meeting with Gollum - it is an extremely important scene, in terms of longterm plot-lines, but a couple of times I got tired of dealing with Gollum's multiple personalities and just wanted everything to move on and to go back to the characters I actually care about.

Still, to feel that only once in a movie that is nearly 3 hours long is something. All in all, it was a great film.

A few more points for the Golden Gentlemen Challenge:
- 1 film + 1 actor = 2 points + 3 points from before for a total of 5 points in the challenge so far.



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