“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”
And so starts a journey for reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins who, along with a party of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf, look to restore the dwarves to their original kingdom following its capture by a dragon called Smaug, whilst setting in motion a chain of events which will have larger ramifications for the whole of Middle Earth.
It was inevitable, even amongst the wrangles of film rights, changes in director and rumours of a remake of “The Dambusters”, that Peter Jackson would be making a return to the realm of Middle Earth. Little did we know that it would take nine years for “The Hobbit”, albeit the first act of a new trilogy, to see the light of day.
Jackson along with regular scripting partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh plus Guillermo Del Toro, the director originally chosen to helm this project, has crafted a script that doesn’t treat “The Hobbit” in isolation from the rest of the cycle of “The Lord Of The Rings”. In fact, it links it closer together with foreshadowings of what is to come being scattered throughout the whole of the film. That said, it is a film with its own identity from the rest of the (and I’m sorry to say this word) franchise.
Yes, “The Hobbit” is an adventure film and, yes, there are dark moments punctuated throughout the story but, on the main, “The Hobbit” is a lighter film with comedic elements within it which is more in turn with the book’s origin as a children’s story.
The direction by Peter Jackson is top notch making full use of the artist’s pallet that are the vistas of New Zealand to full effect which are complimented by fantastic set designs and an improvement on the already magnificent special effects provided by Weta for the first three films.
Another area where not only the direction should be applauded, but the work of all of the behind the camera team, is the continuity of look between the “The Hobbit” and the previous trilogy.
However, “The Hobbit” has moved on in two major respects which work hand in hand based on the performance that I saw this evening. Firstly, this is the first of the Middle Earth cycle to be filmed in 3D. It is also the very first film to be filmed in the new 48 frames per second high speed format. “What difference does this make?” you may ask. Well, from my personal opinion, it actually benefits the whole 3D process in by making the picture quality sharper and adding pace to the on screen performance. Whilst previous films such as “Thor” were beautiful to watch, the traditional 24 frames per second method of filming made the picture quality look blurred at times, especially in fast paced scenes, whilst the 3D lacked visual punch at times. I admit that it does take a little getting used to at the start of the film as the new framerate does feel a little false to begin with, but do persevere as the benefits do outweigh the negatives.
Now, for in front of the camera. There are quite a few returns to Middle Earth starting with a cameo from the original Bilbo, Ian Holm, along with Elijah Wood returning as Frodo. In addition to these two, you get short reappearances from Christopher Lee as Saruman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett still showing the grace and beauty in her role of Galadriel.
But the main reappearances of this film are Ian McKellen in the role of Gandalf and Andy Serkis donning the performance capture suit as Gollum/Smeagol. Ian McKellen resets his performance to the tone of the earlier scenes of “The Fellowship of the Ring” capturing Gandalf’s mischievous behaviour, but with all the best intentions throughout the film. However, in key moments McKellen also demonstrates his ability to change gear and deliver a performance of suitable gravitas especially when it comes to the foreshadowing of events in the “Rings” trilogy including the first mentions of Sauron and Bilbo’s discovery of a certain ring.
Andy Serkis delivers a performance which is both comedic and chilling in equal measure. As befitting the character of Gollum’s nature, the comedic aspect of the performance is basically a trap to lead in the unwary – not just in the case of Bilbo but for audience members who haven’t seen the “Rings” films. The chilling, murderous side to the character which underpins the humour lies just below the surface and it’s a real testament to Mr Serkis’s acting talents.
There are also a lot of newcomers to this film with younger actors such as Aidan Turner in the role of Kili blending into a dynamic which includes actors of the stature of James Nesbitt in the role of Bofur and Ken Stott in the key role of Thorin’s “right hand man”, Balin. However, I wanted to focus on three.
As a Whovian, it was great to finally see the Seventh Doctor himself, Sylvester McCoy, in the role of Radagast the Brown. Sylvester has had a knack of picking roles where his dynamic, frenetic nature sits side by side with his more serious, darker tempo of acting, so Radagast was a case of perfect casting as he ably shifts from the crisis in Mirkwood to a man who has a forgetful nature when recounting his tale to Gandalf and then back into a darker frame when he finally shares the story of his encounter with the Necromancer.
Richard Armitage is perfect casting in the role of Thorin Oakenshield, the young prince who has had his kingdom stolen from him and the leader of the Dwarf company. Although he is meant to be smaller in nature than humans, Armitage invests a power and size in the role of Thorin which commands respect. He also invests the character with an arrogance and single minded nature which serves as a counterpoint to the character of Aragorn in the “Rings” trilogy. Whereas Aragorn is portrayed as a man who is reluctant, bordering on running away, from his responsibilities of kingship yet serves as a quiet effective leader, Thorin is shown to be a gruff, stubborn and arrogant character who sees his reclaiming of Erebor from Smaug as a matter of “divine right”.
Last, but certainly by no means least, there is Martin Freeman taking on the role of the younger Bilbo. I have enjoyed Martin’s performance as John Watson in “Sherlock” and he invests the same “everyman” characteristics to the role of Bilbo. Initial reluctance to take part in the dwarves undertaking gives way to an eagerness to take part in the adventure but it is an eagerness with doubt as to whether he is worthy to be part of the Company. Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo builds a firm bond with several characters within the Company, notably Gandalf, Balin and, in a particularly touching scene with Bofur as he explains why he is wrong for his role as the Burglar.
But his interactions with Serkis as Gollum are particularly well played as Bilbo seeks to outwit him in the game of riddles and, more significantly, during a particular key moment which is referenced earlier in the film when he receives his sword, Sting, and is also referenced in “Fellowship” in a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf on the nature of mercy.
This is a brilliant film and the ending will have fans of the book and the other “Rings” films eagerly awaiting the second film next year.