When you’re right, you’re right.
Regular readers of these pages will know that a few weeks ago, I posted a piece titled, “In Defense of Peter Jackson”, in which I shared some common-sense perspective on the director’s films based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. That piece was subsequently selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature, and received many favorable comments, for which I am grateful. Last night I finally managed to see “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. For “An Unexpected Journey” is wonderful: full of life, fun, adventure, and something very important which not a single review I read mentioned, and that is love.
There are a number of threads woven together into why I found this not only an enjoyable film, but a successful one that actually improves the more that you think about it. First of all, let it be said that no, this is not “The Lord of the Rings” re-booted. It is a different story altogether. The company of travelers in “The Hobbit” are going on an adventure, for different reasons – treasure, revenge, the thrill of it, etc. – even if there are some larger themes that are explored. They are not out to save the world, as are the Fellowship in “The Lord of the Rings”, and because of that we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.
Jackson takes us right back to Middle Earth, and it looks just as lovely as it did the last time we were there, if not more so. For technology has continued to advance since the first “Lord of the Rings” film came out ten years ago – hard to believe! – and a number of things are even better now, from a technical perspective. Jackson creates a whole word, but whereas in the first trilogy some of the string-pulling, as my filmmaker brother put it last night, was more obvious, in this film it is virtually seamless. The mountains open up into gigantic vistas in one scene for example, rather than being dependent solely upon what can be seen from a helicopter camera. The light of the moon mixed with fire in a fight sequence feels real, rather than the product of special effects. And the things which were beautiful to look at in the first trilogy – Bilbo’s comfy house, the Gaudi-style pavilions at Rivendell, etc. – are all there to be enjoyed in even more detail.
Those not looking for gee-whiz technology or action, will find the acting here uniformly excellent. Martin Freeman is a far more likeable Bilbo than I was anticipating, and you warm to him very quickly; he is someone whom you actually look forward to going on this adventure with, and he carries the heart of the film absolutely beautifully. The wise and the great are back and in proper form, from the engaging Ian McKellan and Ian Holm, to the radiant Cate Blanchett, the cerebral Hugo Weaving, and the majestically malevolent Christopher Lee. And Andy Serkis outdoes himself in interpreting Gollum, if one can even imagine that, reminding us that Gollum was a frightening, cannibalistic, and murderous thing, especially when he had the twisted self-confidence of his Precious to support him.
For me, the revelation here is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the company of travelers heading to the Lonely Mountain. I must confess, I have been a huge fan of Armitage since his days on “Spooks” (called “MI-5” in the U.S.), and he was probably the only good thing about the insipid, juvenile, and Occupy-esque “Robin Hood” series, which I have written about previously. However as I have only seen him on television, when I learnt that he would have this major part I was slightly doubtful as to whether he would be able to carry off such an important and prominent role in the story.
I need not have worried, for Armitage is superb. He embodies leadership and physical prowess, certainly, but also carries a sense of personal dignity mixed with a willingness to engage in self-sacrifice for his people, even if it means his own personal humiliation. There is also a kind of sorrow fired by a desire for revenge, against those who destroyed his family and his world, which is going to be interesting to see develop over the next two films. At one point in a fight sequence, faced with impossible odds and no chance of escape, he decides to turn round and go attack his enemy head-on, to buy the others time even if it means his own death. One of the dwarves comments [forgive my paraphrasing], “Here is the one whom we can follow to the end,” but by that point in the film the viewer has already made that decision as well.
As to complaints about the schoolboy humor of the dwarves, or the length of the film, or the references to the other films and other books, or the like, I will leave that to those with small hearts and large opinions of themselves to squabble over. For what I came away with after seeing this film was first and foremost that I had an absolutely terrific time: I was ENTERTAINED.
Remember when movies used to entertain us, rather than serve as nothing more than expensive pornography or soulless, giant-screen versions of video games as they do now? Those days are practically gone Yet here, we have an exception.
Like his previous films, Jackson’s “An Unexpected Journey” has something very special about it, which clearly represents the love that he has for the material itself, the people he is working with, and those of us who will see it. To walk out of the theatre these days being thoroughly entertained, having had the chance to laugh, be scared, think about things like decency and goodness, and even shed a tear or two, is no small thing for a director to be able to achieve. The ability to play all of these different notes in a harmonious composition is something that is sorely lacking in the bulk of modern mainstream cinema.
And that sense that I had a really good time watching this adventure unfold, which is still with me even as I type this, naturally leads me to a sense of gratitude for its director. For Jackson did what I said he was going to do, in my earlier blog post. He took the talent and resources given to him at this particular point in time, and used it to make something for us to enjoy. And I am very grateful that he did.
Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman in a scene from “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”