I have fond memories of reading The Hobbit when I was a youngster and I’m sure that many others do too. In fact, every time I tried to read The Lord Of The Rings and ended up realising that I was not yet old or mature enough to wade through “the dull bits” essential to the story I would, inevitably, head back to The Hobbit and re-read it. For Peter Jackson, things have moved the other way, cinematically speaking. The Hobbit has been in development for a long, long time and at one point it looked like it would never get made, despite the incredible success of The Lord Of The Rings movies. But it’s unwise to ever bet against anything that Peter Jackson is passionate about. He’s made one or two mis-steps in his career but his hits far outweigh his misses, in my view, and that has allowed him to get to quite a prominent position on the Hollywood ladder.
Before I move into standard review mode, there are a couple of things that need pointed out here. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first film to be released in HFR (high frame rate). This means that, as opposed to the traditional 24 Frames Per Second, the image runs at 48 Frames Per Second. I went to see the movie in HFR 3D and I can see the good and the bad in the form. I’m not fully convinced that it’s the way forward, and I worry that Jackson will spiral down on a Zemeckis trip (as I’m labelling it), but the clarity of image was amazing. I agree with others who think that certain scenes look like they were lifted from The History Channel reconstruction programmes but the major sets looked stunning, the CGI was much improved by the HFR and some scenes were simply breathtaking, including Gollum looking even MORE realistic than ever and a finale that really delivered the goods. My wife had absolutely no problem with the image and was simply impressed by the clarity and quality of every image. Hmmmmm, perhaps this tells me that she has better eyesight than I do. Anyway, I would advise people that it is worth being prepared for and you may take time to see the benefits (the entire movie steps up a gear in the second half) but I certainly didn’t hear any vocal complaints in the busy screening that I attended and nobody walked out.
Secondly, I was as worried as everyone else when I heard that Jackson had taken a light and enjoyable book and made it into three lengthy movies but doubters can stop doubting. The film has some moments that feel unnecessary and some details that audiences perhaps didn’t need to have onscreen but if Jackson hasn’t earned some indulgences at this stage in his quest to please all of the fans then I despair. And the fans WILL be pleased. The fact that the movie contains material from other Tolkien lore and appendices means that there are also still some surprises to be had.
Now, after going on about the presentation, to the actual content of the film. The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey isn’t as good as The Lord Of The Rings movies but it’s very good. The story is already known to most but I’ll give it the briefest of recaps here: Young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is chosen by Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) to help a group of dwarves (led by Thorin, played by Richard Armitage) reclaim their home. The journey will be a dangerous one with the group meeting elves, orcs, goblins, other wizards, dangerous animals and the riddling Gollum (Andy Serkis) as they move closer and closer to The Lonely Mountain, once the home of dwarves and now the gold-filled lair of Smaug the dragon.
Freeman is a new leading man for these adventures and slips into the hobbit feet perfectly. He’s a great everyman and also has the comedy background helping him out when reactions from him are played for laughs. McKellen is very comfortable back in the world of Middle Earth, as are the other returning cast members – Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Andy Serkis (with Serkis being a real highlight once again hidden behind motion capture). Richard Armitage is good as Thorin while Ken Stott and James Nesbitt have their moments but the dwarves mostly blur into one big group group of bearded wee men. Sylvester McCoy is wonderful as nature-loving wizard Radagast The Brown (birds nesting in his hair while he’s pulled along on his sled by large and powerful rabbits) and there’s also a decent villain, other than Smaug, that’s been created for the movie and he certainly stands out as an impressive piece of work.
Thinking about it, however, made me think that the best character was the world itself. It was great to go back to that world and meet some old friends and be in the more than capable hands of Jackson directing. Inevitably, a lot of the moments feel similiar (not just in terms of content but also in the camera moves and flourishes, which audiences are now used to after having been so spoilt). The cynical could run through the movie and tick off every move – group squabble, quiet contemplation, aerial cinematography, group chat, quiet chat, aerial cinematography, repeat and repeat – but it worked with The Lord Of The Rings and I, for one, am happy to see an approach consisting of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The tone, the feel of the thing, is different in just the right way. It’s lighter, more of a romp, compared to what has come before and fans of the books will agree – that’s as it should be.
The first 30-45 minutes may test viewers on more than one occasion. There’s a very lengthy prologue before the introduction of the main storyline and the dishwashing song/scene (lifted from the book) just made me cringe. But the song after it gave me goosebumps. It was beautiful and magical and enjoyable and dark. And that’s what these movies are. From that moment on, I started to remember that and was once again transported to a world that remains, in my opinion, the most well-realised fantasy world ever shown on film.
DIRECTOR: PETER JACKSON
WRITER: FRAN WALSH, PHILIPPA BOYENS, PETER JACKSON, GUILLERMO DEL TORO (BASED ON THE WORK OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN)
STARS: MARTIN FREEMAN, IAN MCKELLEN, RICHARD ARMITAGE, KEN STOTT, GRAHAM MCTAVISH, WILLIAM KIRCHER, JAMES NESBITT, STEPHEN HUNTER, DEAN O’GORMAN, AIDAN TURNER, JOHN CALLEN, PETER HAMBLETON, JED BROPHY, MARK HADLOW, ADAM BROWN, HUGO WEAVING, CATE BLANCHETT, ANDY SERKIS, SYLVESTER MCCOY
RUNTIME: 169 MINUTES APPROX
COUNTRY: USA/NEW ZEALAND