In the opening moments of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for this reviewer, an entire life with J. R. R. Tolkien's book flashed before my eyes. It's an overwhelming moment knowing that the first book you ever feel in love was about to come to life on film. Before bowing down to the altar of Tolkien once again in the hands of filmmaker, Peter Jackson, it was time to lock away the fond memories. The first step into a trilogy of films built off the back of a swift read is daunting, but Jackson has crafted a film that's a wild and visually stunning quest through a fantasy world all done with the noble spirit of courage and goodwill.
Set 60 years before the events of the 'Lord of the Rings', Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) joins a band of dwarfs and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) on a quest to reclaim their mountain home from a great evil.
Middle Earth is open for business once again and it's a spectacular place to explore. From epic mountain kingdoms to the humble abode of a hobbit, Jackson and his team of visual effect gurus, with the aid of the luscious scenery of New Zealand, fully immerse you into a world of magic and wonder. Every blade of grass and rocky outcrop has a sense of history and the landscape is kicking and screaming with life.
With a world so grand and the boundless treasures and kingdoms to explore, it's intriguing that the hobbit Bilbo Baggins chooses to spend his days focusing on the simple things in life: good food and pipe weed. The contentment of Bilbo in his peaceful setting may be one of indulgence but it's almost a warning against ignorance. The arrival of the wizard Gandalf and 13 unruly dwarfs rattles Bilbo outside his comfort zone. As the sparks of the plot appear in their introduction and light the flame of adventure in Bilbo's mind, there is a nice message about seeking the world outside your own bubble and broadening your experience. Jackson with his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, do a fantastic job of letting The Hobbit find strength is these smaller moments and themes that add potency to the spectacle of the enormous action pieces.
Dwarf armies at battle, dragons, storm giants and a thrilling chase sequence through hordes of goblins are examples of the excess that's so entertaining. Jackson sometimes does overdose on these rambunctious moments running from one long explosive sequence into another with not much time to settle. After the dust in between each action sequence does finally settle, there is more time to dissect the themes at play with the most engaging being the presence of the rookie Bilbo amongst the battle hardened dwarfs. In a world where evil lurks it's not the sword that keeps the darkness at bay but the everyday good deeds and kindness people show to each other. Bilbo represents this line of thinking that in it turn gives the company courage in times when the blade fails. 'The Hobbit' is bursting with these wonderful sentiments that illicit real emotional investment into this fantastical realm.
The band of dwarfs is a quirky bunch of battlers led by the brave Thorin, played with a heroic edge by Richard Armitage. Jackson takes the time to let them all his characters get there moment to shine with Ken Stott who plays the wise Balin, getting the most to work with outside Armitage. All the actors portraying the dwarfs manage to carve out their own little space within the group, a few doing it with a funny one-liner while for others it's just a strong visual presence. Most notably it's the rotund redhead Bombur, played by Stephen Hunter who becomes a memorable character without uttering a word. McKellan slips into the robes of Gandalf perfectly with great nobility that gives importance to a lot of the exposition of a lot of his dialogue. Freeman is great as the hobbit thrown into the deep end of Middle Earth's dangers. His performance carries a lot of the wonderment and trepidation about the journey. The scenes he shares with the brilliant Andy Serkis as Gollum is one of the major highlights of the film.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has an extremely long running time (169 minutes) but as the film comes to a close there is a feeling of utter exhaustion and exhilaration. It's as if you've shared every footstep and emotional beat with each character. There's a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment that only comes from the intricate way that Jackson lets the story play out. The filmmaker's all-seeing-eye is already reaching beyond the bounds of just 'The Hobbit' and the two films that are set to follow.
Jackson is creating the full universe of Middle Earth on film and he's working with the immaculate detail of a master craftsman to ensure 'The Hobbit' is not just going to be a standalone romp through another one of Tolkien's creations.
[rating=4] and a half
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' screened in 48FPS 3D and looked spectacular.
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is released: 26 December 2012 Australia