The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey - review

Peter Jackson has managed to dart off in new directions as he returns to Middle Earth.

The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (12A)
dir: Peter Jackson

J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published in 1937 for a young readership, with the author moving into a more highfalutin register for the sequel, The Lord of the Rings (written as one volume but split into three in the mid-1950s). The New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson is approaching the material from the opposite direction. Having secured an inbuilt audience of many millions through his more adult Lord of the Rings movies, he may have been tempted to apply their solemnity to his new three-part film of the earlier, jauntier book. On the evidence of the first episode, An Unexpected Journey, he has resisted.

In print, The Hobbit is far superior to its sequel: it’s accessible and full of pace and punch where LOTR, with its tortuous descriptions of the density of bogland and undergrowth, can be recommended to only the most patient devotees of Gardeners’ Question Time. The later book’s sales figures (more than 150 million copies and counting) prove as effectively as anything by E L James that masochism is big business. However, Jackson somehow managed to find the wistful magic buried in the marshy prose.

The LOTR films, released between 2001 and 2003, had sincerity and cinematic sweep, not to mention eyefuls of handsome New Zealand landscape previously unexploited on screen. They also had longueurs within longueurs, though the extended viewing time brought the audience closer to the arduous experience of the characters, even if the perils faced during all those hours in a cinema seat came not from giant spiders and snarling Orcs but deep-vein thrombosis.

Other parties had tried to adapt LOTR, including the Beatles, who failed to interest Stanley Kubrick in making a version for them to star in. (It’s worth noting that their 1965 film, Help!, revolves around a sacrificial ring lodged on Ringo Starr’s finger.) In the 1970s, John Boorman shopped around a script featuring a scene in which Frodo Baggins has sex, which is a bit like putting cancan dancers in a Stalingrad movie – lust for power being the nearest thing to carnality in the chaste vistas of Middle Earth. Ralph Bakshi made an atmospheric 1978 animated version but its commercial failure precluded any follow-ups.

It would be unfair, then, to mock the studios and financiers who baulked at Jackson’s idea of making the project as two movies. Wizard hats off to Bob Shaye at New Line Cinema, who took an educated leap of faith by suggesting that Jackson should make a trilogy.

Jackson shed a large amount of his body weight after finishing the third LOTR film – anywhere between three and five stone depending on whom you read (and whether the director removed his shoes before climbing on the scales). But his subsequent films, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, were not correspondingly streamlined. The latter was so feeble in vision and philosophy that a return to Tolkien (after The Hobbit’s original director, Guillermo del Toro, stepped down following production delays) seemed the only possible salve for his reputation. Still, my heart sank at the news that a book as breezy as The Hobbit was being given the nine-hour treatment.

Happily, An Unexpected Journey has zip. Set in Middle Earth 60 years earlier than LOTR, it begins with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) nominating the pipe-and-slippers hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to join a hazardous mission. A band of dwarves plan to wrest back control of their kingdom, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug, which is snoozing among stolen treasures while the ordinary folk live in fear and poverty. I won’t say “banking crisis allegory” if you don’t.

Like LOTR, An Unexpected Journey revolves, essentially, around an eventful country ramble. (As a character in Kevin Smith’s Clerks II remarks of the first trilogy: “All it was was a bunch of people walking. Three movies of people walking through a fucking volcano.”) But the new film is distinguished by a swashbuckling simplicity, a sense that the thrill of the adventure might not need to be paid for with quite so many ponderous interludes.

For an indication of the differences, you need only compare the Ents, those impossibly dull walking-talking trees from LOTR, with their nearest equivalent in An Unexpected Journey: a range of jagged, stony mountains that knock seven shades of flint out of one another. But not everything has changed. Humour in Middle Earth remains folksy: someone falls over, someone else has the size of his sword impugned. The sanctuary of Rivendell still resembles a tacky New Age spa and weighty conversations occur on mountain-side platforms. When a flock of benevolent birds deposits the dwarves on a vertiginous rock face, no one has the presence of mind to say: “Not to be ungrateful but couldn’t you have dropped us on the mezzanine level?”

Set pieces are cut together fashionably fast without any cost to clarity. The attack by Smaug the dragon on the dwarf kingdom is staged without showing the beast itself: we glimpse nothing but its stomping feet, its slashing tail and the rippling tease of a dragon kite dancing above the rooftops. Through the wonders of motion-capture, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the monster, but we will have to wait until next year’s episode (The Desolation of Smaug) to see whether those layers of concealing pixels will throw his many amorous admirers off the scent.

Most caveats about An Unexpected Journey will pertain to Jackson’s use of 48-frames-persecond 3D technology (as opposed to the standard 24). It brings a polished clarity to the nocturnal scenes but looks appalling during chases through a sunlit forest, worse even than the fuzzy blue-screen effects that used to crop up during old flying-carpet movies. Many scenes appear unforgivingly bright. Even then, it’s not a deal-breaker, though there’s always the risk that audiences will wonder why these epic battles for the soul of Middle Earth are lit like The Only Way is Essex.

Watched together, Jackson’s six Tolkien films may eventually reveal poignant continuity glitches: McKellen will surely age in reverse, while special effects and make-up will be more sophisticated in the pictures that figure earliest in the narrative. The seedy, pasty-faced look is very in among this year’s ghouls and grotesques: a trio of trolls resemble lardy likenesses of Steven Berkoff, while Barry Humphries is in Les Patterson mode as the Goblin King, whose distinguishing feature is a floppy scrotal chin.

As usual, the CGI scene-stealing honours go to Gollum (Andy Serkis): the shoulder blades saw beneath his unkissed skin, the moist eyes strain imploringly at the limits of their sockets. Gollum has achieved the status of Special Guest Star now – I could feel the audience on tenterhooks when he scampered into view – but An Unexpected Journey is not merely the victory lap for Jackson that it could have been. He may be back in the familiar surroundings of Middle Earth but as a film-maker he’s darting off in new directions. I’m happy to follow.

Martin Freeman as the titular Hobbit.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories