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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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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