The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey REVIEW

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey film review.

He is not a Freeman, he is a Hobbit.


Release Date: 14 December 2012
12A | 169 minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt, Richard Armitage

Middle-earth is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way across the Shire to Farmer Maggot’s field, but that’s…

Oh hang on. Wrong franchise. But there are moments during Peter Jackson’s bold attempt to marry the straightforward children’s fantasy heroics of The Hobbit with the larger, darker Middle-earth of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy that feel like they should be accompanied by old Bilbo as “The Voice Of The Book”. The Book in this case being The Silmarillion. An Unexpected Journey feels like an adaptation of Tolkien’s book with added illustrated footnotes. Here’s a pitted history of Erebor, the Dwarven Kingdom. Here are some notes concerning Radagast. Here’s a discourse about the Dol Goldur and necromancy.

Filming The Hobbit and making it feel like a Lord Of The Rings prequel and not just a very expensive childrens’ fantasy quest was always going to be a problem, and Jackson just about gets away with it. The original book is a fairly linear quest tale, though a very good one, and with bags of charm. That all remains intact – there’s a lot more character humour here than in any of the Rings films. The dwarves are bawdy and loveable, the trolls are endearingly thick, and Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, whose reluctant heroism and plucky, down-to-(Middle)-earth stoicism is a welcome contrast to the emo-theatrics of Frodo.

Overlaid onto this, though, is the “bigger picture”, as Jackson reels in Tolkien lore from various sources to flesh out the story, and try to give it more of a resonance and more of a sense of threat. It nearly works, but not quite. While the story certainly feels more rooted in the larger history of Middle-earth, it also makes the film feels a little too Lord Of The Rings-lite, highlighting rather than disguising the rather simplistic episodic plot.

There remains a lot to enjoy, though, including some stunning action setpieces (the opening scenes with the dragon Smaug attacking Erebor are amazing), and the sumptuous production design and cinematography. The acting is outstanding; all the dwarves are impeccably cast and have their moments in the spotlight, and Ian McKellen is possibly even better here than he was in the Rings trilogy.

Occasionally Jackson goes over the top with FX stunts that are just too outrageous to take seriously (Sylvester McCoy as Radagast The Brown on a bunny-pulled sleigh being chased by Wargs, anyone?) and he still relies far too heavily on CG stunt doubles that give the action a videogame feel (will he ever learn?). The film also veers dangerously near Harry Potter at times: the Troll King is worryingly cartoony, and Radagast (a spirited performance from Sylvester McCoy) looks like he lives in the grounds of Hogwarts.

Tellingly – and crucially – the best scene in the entire film is the Riddles In The Dark sequence, as Gollum and Bilbo challenge each other to word puzzles in a dank cave. It’s long, it’s character-driven, it’s outstandingly performed, it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s… perfect. In amongst some of the other excesses on display, it proves that the best cinematic storytelling still evolves through character… even if one of those characters is a performance-captured CG creation.

“The worst is behind us,” says Bilbo at the end of the film. Hey, it wasn’t that bad, old fella! An Unexpected Journey is a bit ropey, excessive and padded in places, sure, but if that’s the worst and the best is yet to come, then this could end up being another great trilogy. And from the glimpses we see, Smaug looks like he’s going to be terrific…

A NOTE CONCERNING 48FPS:

A lot has been said and written about the ultra-crisp 48 frames-per-second version of this film (conventionally, films are shot at half this frame-rate), but a lot of the criticism seems to stem from “the shock of the new”. It does look startlingly bright and sharp. However, criticisms that it makes the sets look artificial and is reminiscent of ’80s sitcoms are wildly overstated. There are times when the new system helps make the production design look gorgeous, and it gives the film a hyperreality that suits the fantasy content perfectly.

It also helps to create some of the most effective live-action 3D we’ve yet seen at the cinema, and totally avoids the murkiness that 3D can involve. There are plenty of cave scenes, but you won’t be squinting in the gloom.

But it’s not all good news. There’s something odd about 48fps in motion. It gives the impression of an old silent movie that’s been slightly overcranked. Some action scenes almost feel like The Keystone Cops or a Benny Hill chase scene. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but there is a hint of that. Tellingly, when the film goes into slowmotion mode, this problem falls away and the visuals are simply stunning.

The other slight drawback is that 48fps seems to be very unforgiving to any slightly ropey CG effects. The poor FX guys are going to have to up their game if this is the future of cinema.

Dave Golder twitter.com/DaveGolder

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