|Film review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - PART ONE|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Monday, 10 December 2012 12:06|
Director: Peter Jackson
In a land of myth, and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young person. His name... Bilbo Baggins.
That’s what springs to mind as Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth. With its patented 48 frames per second projection, everything in The Hobbit has a hyper-real look that immediately recalls a BBC drama. Combined with a lengthy opening voiceover about dwarves (Ian Holm doing his best John Hurt impression), a dragon and the odd dodgy special effect, it feels like you’re watching an extremely long episode of Merlin.
In a way, that should be totally appropriate: The Hobbit is a smaller beast than The Lord of the Rings, a children’s romp rather than a sprawling fantasy epic. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told Jackson that. And so we get both: TV-like images and a bloated runtime.
Fans may rejoice that writers Philippa Boyens, Jackson & Guillermo del Toro managed to squeeze 2 hours and 40 minutes out of barely seven chapters of JRR Tolkien’s tiny book, but only half of it has anything to do with the text. The rest are bolt-on sequences designed to fill the film’s unnecessary length.
The Necromancer and Radagast the Brown (McCoy), each mentioned just once in the book, are given a 20-minute tangent, while Jackson goes to great lengths to include a horde of familiar faces from his last trek through Middle Earth. It’s so heavily padded, it’s amazing he didn’t take The Hobbit to Isengard. (In a years’ time, Warner Bros will hopefully release a Special Un-Extended Edition that only lasts an hour and a half.)
“There is little to tell about their stay [at Rivendell],” says the book. The screenplay ignores that, conjuring up a council of great wizards at Elrond’s (Weaving) house, who manage to spend quarter of an hour vaguely discussing dark portents for the future. Ian Holm and Elijah Wood’s cameo at the start feels even more irrelevant; OAP Bilbo’s book-writing framework makes no sense when mixed with Tolkien’s original third-person narration.
These deviations wouldn't be a problem if they were done well, but after trimming The Lord of the Rings without losing the spirit of the book, Jackson seems to go the other way and stuff things in willy-nilly. An Orc called Azog (a snarling Manu Bennett) is beefed up to become an antagonist, while Radagast exists solely to introduce some 3D rabbit racing. It's less an adaptation of The Hobbit, more a prequel to The Lord of the Rings – an uneven approach that risks putting this half-silly, half-ominous blockbuster in Phantom Menace territory.
Fortunately, The Hobbit just about avoids becoming The Lord of the Rings: Episode I. That’s mostly because of the excellent cast. McKellen inhabits Gandalf as casually as a wizard puffing smoke rings and Freeman's uptight Bilbo is perfectly pitched. The dwarves blend into one giant unsympathetic hairball (reminder: their main motivation in this film is "stealing someone else's gold"), but Richard Armitage brings a commanding, steely presence as King Thorin, while Sylvester McCoy summons all his kooky charm to stop you resenting Radagast altogether.
The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Gollum. Andy Serkis’ mo-capped creature slithers around his dark cave spewing riddles with venom – a spellbinding sequence that shows Jackson still knows how to omit and expand to great effect. That it works so well, though, only jars with the rest of the script; it falls to Howard Shore’s grand score to hold everything together. Deftly linking leitmotifs from the last trilogy with the dwarves’ new, brooding song, the soundtrack achieves what the film partly fails to do: recapture that feeling of Middle Earth.
Which brings us back to those visuals. When he isn’t inserting bits from The Lord of the Rings Appendices, Jackson’s eye for action is as solid as ever. Sequences in the goblin caves are exciting, if a bit video gamey, and a brief flash of mountain giants is jaw-dropping stuff. It’s just a shame that the director chose to film it all at 48fps. Once accustomed to it, the frame rate adds a nice level of detail to the sweeping New Zealand landscape, but everything else looks like it’s moving in double-time; not a problem during the fun climax, but distractingly unfamiliar when we’re watching Bilbo quick-march through Bag End.
(With much debate surrounding this “groundbreaking” presentation, the question is whether watching The Hobbit in 2D at 24fps will improve the experience or expose what is, at its heart, an unexpectedly messy journey.)
It’s certainly strange that a film that appears to be in perpetual fast-forward should be stretched out for so long, but the performances, set pieces and catchy score build up to a fun pace in the final half. And so The Hobbit goes there and back and there and back and there and back again. And like its frustrated eponymous hero, you’ll enjoy most of it. Maybe it’s not so dissimilar to Merlin after all.
This is the end of an exhaustively long PART ONE of my review of The Hobbit. Now click here for PART TWO AND THREE.