There are many things to discuss when it comes to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part of Peter Jackson’s attempt at translating the rest of Tolkien’s catalogue onto the big screen. And let’s get this out of the way early, in case anyone is still whinging about there being three films – this trilogy is covering several of Tolkien’s works – not just The Hobbit. Sure, that story forms the backbone, but there’s plenty more going on.
Discussing the plot seems almost redundant at this point: those who know it know it, and those who don’t, probably don’t care. What is worth discussing is Peter Jackson’s decision to film his movie in a progressive and relatively untested Higher Frame Rate (48 frames per second, as opposed to the industry standard 24 that’s been used for nearly a hundred years). The aim is to provide extra clarity and smoothness, reducing motion blur and ensuring that the 3D effects are as polished and as slick as can be. That’s the theory, and it certainly sounds good on paper. In reality, it’s nothing short of a disaster.
The picture is clear, all right. But it’s too clear. Film has a very distinct look and style when compared to television. It’s what we describe as “that cinematic quality”. It allows us to believe in what we see on screen, whether it’s a modern legal thriller or a lavish fantasy world. HFR completely robs The Hobbit of that cinematic quality. Despite the undoubtedly lavish production and design values, everything looks cheap. It appears as if we’re watching test footage, the kind usually saved for a DVD extra.
The unnoticeable but crucial blur and fuzz of regular frame rates ensure events on screens look convincing, by masking the joins, and papering over the cracks, as it were. Without it the entire affair looks unbearably stagey. The spell is broken and it’s suddenly a hollow experience. The prosthetics, the sets, the CGI… it’s all so clear that it’s all fake.
It’s like seeing the strings on a puppet show; the immersion that allowed twelve hours of The Lord of the Rings to completely suck us into Middle Earth is gone. The effect is that you’re very aware that you’re watching actors, performing on a set. And for a fantasy extravaganza designed to suck you into its world, that’s just unforgivable. With the potential of The Hobbit, in particular, it’s heartbreaking.
To the film’s credit, there are moments when it’s less noticeable – during a frenetic, hack and slash escape from a Goblin city that forms the film’s climax, for example (taking us up to the end of chapter 6 of 19 in the novel) – but on the whole it has to go down as a badly failed experiment on Jackson’s part. Luckily, you can choose to see the film in the standard 24 FPS – and we strongly urge that you to do so.
But enough about the technology; what about the film itself?
Well, if it’s not quite a masterpiece like its forebears, it is good. The cast are uniformly excellent, with the all of the returning players slipping ably back into their roles, and Sherlock star Martin Freeman is a perfect fit as Bilbo Baggins. What surprises most about his performance – much like the titular Hobbit he plays – is how well he steps up and excels at the heroism when he needs to.
Of the new additions to the cast, Richard Armitage (Spooks) is superb as proud, deposed dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield. He’s a different beast to Aragorn, but much like that other lost king of Middle Earth, you can absolutely see why he inspires such loyalty; you understand why people would die for him. Of the company of dwarves, much like in the book, Thorin and Ken Stott’s Balin get the beefiest roles, while the rest are largely interchangeable. Standing out slightly are Aiden Turner’s young, spirited Kili and James Nesbitt’s warm and soulful Bofur.
Slightly more problematic – through no fault of the classy Ian McKellen – is Gandalf the wizard. His magic has devolved into an overused Deus ex machina. He’s become the Sonic Screwdriver of Middle Earth.
With The Hobbit being a children’s book, Jackson’s film is understandably a more light-hearted affair than LOTR, and the dwarves are certainly a lively, riotous bunch, but at times the comedy feels misplaced. When the rest of the film is often more tonally in keeping with the more adult Lord of the Rings, slapstick trolls don’t quite fit in.
And as for Gollum’s big moment – as wonderful as it is to have Andy Serkis back coughing and rasping – it’s played a little too broadly to be truly effective. It’s still a good sequence, but Gollum should be scary; a threat. Here he’s played for laughs, and that does the character something of a disservice.
In fact, only sporadically does the Hobbit approach anywhere near the mastery of The Lord of the Rings; in Thorin’s back-story, told in stirring flashback; with a mournful, melancholy lament delivered by the dwarves before setting off; and in the exciting, rousing climax.
Of the new material – taken from the various appendices and other stories rather than the pages of The Hobbit – it’s generally pretty good.
A meeting of the masters between Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond and Galadriel is cool, while Sylvester McCoy’s fellow wizard Radagast is by no means the Jar Jar type figure early word suggested. His sleigh pulled by rabbits might be silly, but he’s an oddly endearing fellow.
Manu Bennett lends his imposing stature to super-goblin Azog, whose inclusion as the film’s primary antagonist provides a much needed sense of structure to a film that – Bilbo and Thorin’s arcs aside – doesn’t really have an ending.
Most interesting of all, however, is the teasing glimpse of The Necromancer, a Slenderman-looking baddie who is genuinely terrifying, and promises much for the second chapter. As, indeed, do the hints of Smaug the dragon, frustratingly – if expectedly – absent here. We see the destruction he can wreak at the start (without ever seeing him), but we’ll have to wait to see what Benedict Cumberbatch can do with his pair of villains (he’s playing Smaug and The Necromancer).
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a solid adventure, brimming with classy actors and memorable characters. It’s fun, but it’s very much a ‘part one’, and perhaps not as successfully stand-alone as Fellowship was ten years ago. But if a joke falls flat, or if one part doesn’t work, you can be assured that there’s a much better scene or set-piece just around the corner (i.e. the trolls may be weak, but the Stone Giants are magnificent.)
You can’t help but feel that, with the real villains yet to make their debut, this is mostly set-up and the real fun is yet to come with the Desolation of Smaug. But as a reintroduction to Tolkien’s world, An Unexpected Journey is mostly successful. If only the same could be said for the high frame rate experiment.
Released in UK cinemas Friday 14 December 2012 by New Line Cinema.
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