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the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey

We are uncertain exactly what flight of fancy took Bilbo hot-footed out of the Shire to join 12 dwarves on a mission to reclaim their native mountain of Alebore, which was seized by a dragon named Smaug over 60 years ago. We know the choice is an historical one, in both the J.R.R Tolkien chronology but more over, to us, those who have come to know Bilbo Baggins and hobbits and the greater Middle Earth through cinema. The Lord Of The Rings franchise has already taken us on a journey that belongs to a future 60 years ahead, in which a ring is to be destroyed and a king to claim his throne, and unlike any other sequel, remake, reboot, prequel – whatever – the replication of one of cinema’s most magical landscapes is a bewildering watch, because of its far less ambitious narrative. There is no great war, no grand parable of industry, greed and corruption of mankind. This is simply a hobbit’s tale.

The choice to create a mutual place in time from which the The Fellowship Of The Ring and Hobbit trilogies can extend, suggests that we must accept the LOTR films as a component of The Hobbit experience. Bilbo, again, sits at his writing desk before his birthday party, beginning a book about his adventures. He addresses the story to his kin, Frodo, and sure enough, there’s Frodo. Seeing Elijah Wood back in high pants and long locks is something of wonder, like uncovering a forgotten memory. Bilbo tells his story beginning with a visit from Gandalf (Ian McKellan), followed shortly by a veritable siege of festive, musical dwarf-kind. The dwarf theme is wonderfully mysterious; 12 deep male vocals in fine oaky harmony, and it is a beautiful addition to Howard Shore’s LOTR ensemble, which possesses the film’s most stirring nostalgic affect.

The jovial, grouchy, slightly demented, eleventy-one year-old Bilbo – performed beautifully by Ian Holm – is nowhere to be seen in Martin Freeman. His puzzled, apprehensive, hanky-loving hobbit is not so endearing. He is like us, a party to the spectacle of the world outside The Shire, not a component of it. One of the commendable performative tricks that wrapped us up in LOTR was characters’ voices and accents speaking courageous dialogue. Who could forget Gimli’s “and my axe” line, Gandalf’s “you shall not pass” or Sam’s peculiar “o” sound in saying “Frodo”? We don’t get to know our 12 short warriors as well as we’d like, but there are still 2 films to come.

Many characters return but none so strikingly as Andy Serkis’ Gollum. A more refined performance and one that is conscious enough of its future as well, as there is no sign of Smeagol. The creature’s loneliness and delirium are precisely what you’d expect from a Gollum who possessed “the one ring”. His “precious” pronunciation is also perfect and had the scene, like the book played out entirely in darkness, it would have lost none of its terror or mystery. Freeman, and the film’s unusual framing/staging choices are redeemed in what is one of the most masterful sequences of Peter Jackson’s LOTR repertoire.

In terms of fantasy-action there is a thrilling, labyrinthine escape from the Goblin King – like a platform video game – as close to an amusement park attraction as cinema has come and truly suited its 3D/48fps technology. The mines and mountains of the bygone dwarf era or the present Goblin domain, like sliced layer-cakes of rock, are a hellish playground writhing with wormy, hairy life that bursts with flame, blades and crushing stone. Jackson takes us spiralling through elaborate empires, instead of panning over grey, CGI war zones. The film’s particular genus of orc also ride wondrous beasts that are like snarling, flightless incarnations of that thing from The Neverending Story.

With many formats in which to view this spectacle, The Hobbit is a bitter/sweet return to a place that has scarcely escaped its viewers’ minds with thanks to the belated issues of its extended cuts, and finally in 2011, extended blu-ray releases. Though there are some concerns with the film’s overall artificiality, it is thrilling to back in annual anticipation of a journey to Middle Earth for as many hours as we can get.

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