Middle-earth, we meet again!

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

For fans of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson, who thought that the immense and incomparable excitement brought to their lives in the early 2000s was over after The Return of the King, the news that Jackson would be undertaking a movie adaptation of The Hobbit came as a kind of Annunciation! It was a miracle, it was a trumpet being blown to announce the rebirth of that glorious universe called Middle-earth, it meant the dispelling of evil and foul-smelling feature films for three years as The Hobbit – made into three films – would come to rule the big screens in all its Tolkienish ethereality and Jacksonian efficiency.

Oh what a day it was when I first found out that three new movies featuring Middle-earth as only Jackson and his team can craft it were in production! It was like an Elvish dream sent to us from the Undying Lands. Then I had apprehensions that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wouldn’t go up in cinemas in Pakistan. But it did. It went up two weeks after its international release date but it went up. And I was there at the ticket counter, getting my ticket to the first show in Lahore. I was overwhelmed. What would it be like? How would Middle-earth look after all these years? (Not that I hadn’t repeatedly watched the LOTR trilogy on DVD since 2003) Would the music be as haunting, the action as paralyzing? Would the battle sequences be as mind-numbingly heroic? My legs felt weak as I waited outside the theatre with my indulging family.

But I had nothing to worry about. As soon as the movie started, I felt assured that we were all in good hands. From the starting sequences of Erebor to the gathering of the dwarves at Bag End, nothing is out of place. The storytelling falls in with the fast-paced action and slick visual effects as smoothly as the dwarves’ voices do with each other when the chilling and wistful Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold is sung. And it gets better! By the time the company sets out, my goosebumps felt permanent! A good sign. The lovely contrast of cold and warm hues dominating the nocturnal Bag End scenes is an excellent reflection of how, at the heart of this large and looming adventure, nestles a fireside story.

An Unexpected Party: the dwarves at Bag End
An Unexpected Party: the dwarves at Bag End

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a lighter mood more suited to what is essentially a children’s tale as well as a great deal of underlying foreboding are conveyed so well that neither the seriousness of an epic nor the playfulness of a fable are compromised for each other. Glimpses of Thorin’s ancestral battles give added dimension to his character , making him even more of a heroic leader than he appeared to me to be in the book. At the same time, the fun-filled, most memorable scenes from the book, such as the company’s encounter with the trolls, are done in a hale and hearty spirit of storytelling that would have made even Tolkien smile. Seriously, half a dozen grumbling dwarves being rotated on a roasting spit while Martin Freeman attempts to rescue them with his strangely disarming, nervous sort of charm? Can fiction be filmed any better?

Gollum, of course, is brilliantly portrayed as ever, with Andy Serkis adding constantly to the creature’s reservoir of expressions and acoustics and facial contortions. The scene showing Bilbo (invisible with the ring on) deliberating over whether to kill Gollum or spare him, is rather moving and touches upon the theme of true bravery which continues well into the LOTR trilogy. A distinctly younger and less haggard Sméagol is also more pitiable because you can actually mark the beginning of his complete devastation, the very point from which his snuffling, wretched vendetta against the thief, thief, thief Baggins began!

Gandalf, super-wizard and uncontested mentor figure of all times, has longer and fancier combat moments in this film. And who doesn’t love watching Gandalf kick goblin butt? He is so thunderous and awe-inspiring in his iconic grey robe, the Orcs and goblins seem to just crumble in his path. Also, he’s not the only good wizard this time. Radagast the Brown also makes an appearance. His role is expanded and he is given more of a comical colour than many fans would have expected. But just when I was about to feel a slight danger of his becoming too silly for an otherwise larger-than-life feature, he saves Thorin’s company with an excellent diversion as it is being pursued in one of the most maddeningly thrilling scenes from the film.

'Gandalf? Not the wandering wizard?'   'The same'
‘Gandalf? Not the wandering wizard?’ ‘The same’

The characterization of the rest of the dwarves is also creatively done (of course! I hope everyone knows, by now, that I am basically writing an ode here). True to the standard gruff-and-hairy image of a dwarf are Dwalin and Oin and Gloin. And adding entertaining variety are the much-too-polite Ori, the wisdom-sprouting Balin and the handsome Kili, ready to take on any man of Númenor in the looks department. It is a hugely engrossing company, on the whole, which sets out to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug, a dragon I am literally on tenterhooks to see and hear!

If, from all this, it sounds like I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with my mind made up to love everything about it, then yes, maybe I did. And quite frankly, what’s not to love? I cannot stress enough the importance of good and sincere representations of heroism in this day and age. If dramatic visual effects are all-too-easily achieved now, then let them help in telling tales of bravery and friendship and coming-of-age in a convincing way! The techniques of film-making may keep changing but these are values we cannot afford to make antiquated. So, thank you Peter Jackson and team. This was much needed.

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
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