It’s been nine years since we last saw Peter Jackson’s tackle Tolkien’s fantastical world on the big screen, but now the New Zealand filmmaker returns with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The first of three film adaptations of the classic children’s book, it’s grandiloquence will please the fanatics, but leave those on the fence feeling disappointed and potentially nauseous.
After a boisterous battle prologue, An Unexpected Journey starts similarly to The Fellowship of the Ring: in the comfort of the Hobbit Shire with Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), sitting in his subterranean bachelor pad and eulogising his past. From here, the film sinks in to flashback, and the young Bilbo (played now by Martin Freeman) has uninvited guests for dinner: Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan) and thirteen rowdy, mostly forgettable dwarves, with twee names like Oin and Gloin and elaborate Movember facial attire. Following some hobbit bashing and poor dining etiquette, the indignant Bilbo is convinced to help the dwarves on their pursuit to reclaim their former kingdom after it was taken over by the dragon Smaug, and they all set off on a quest across Middle-earth to reclaim their lost land. Along the way, they get into scrapes with man-eating trolls, conniving goblins, maniacal orcs and intellectual elves (headed once again by Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel).
Early on in the film’s hefty 169 minute running time, Gandalf turns to young Bilbo and suggests, ‘every good story needs embellishment’. The wizard is wise. Based on the first 100 pages of the novel, Jackson and his team of writers – now including Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame – struggle to hatch a consistently entertaining story to meet the excessive film length. Borrowing from the rest of Tolkien’s legendarium, there are superfluous subplots involving the annoying forest-dwelling wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), and a tedious fight-out between two anthropomorphic rock creatures, lasting a whopping eight minutes.
Even with a flabby storyline, some of the performances impress. Freeman is simply fantastic as Bilbo. Famous as the hapless hero Tim from Ricky Gervais’ The Office, he brings much needed humour and heart to the film. Sir Ian McKellen is on fantastic form as the altruistic Gandalf, and Andy Serkis steals the show once again as the schizophrenic Gollum, who loses his ‘precious’ ring for the first time in a memorable cryptic showdown with Bilbo.
In an attempt to make the special effects and props look as realistic as possible, the film is expensively shot at 48 frames per second, rather than the standard 24. It’s a jarring experience; instead of the desired effect, such absolute perfection and detail causing the film to look stagey, even imperfect. To it’s credit the new technological advance works to great effect with battle sequences, but is bothersome during the smaller, dramatic moments (seeing big footed hobbits waddle along New Zealand mountain sides is funny enough without it looking like it’s being played at double-speed). It’s a great shame, particularly because the 3D – for a change – is pretty darn good. But, with reports of audience members falling ill during screenings, the simulated feeling of The Hobbit may be too much for some to stomach.
Like the blighted Star Wars prequels, the reawakening of this box-office devouring monster-franchise was bound to be tough. Its financial success inevitable, The Hobbit is something of a Lord of the Rings – diet edition. There are some moments of storytelling finesse, yet they are dragged down by the fellowship formula.
In the film’s closing moments, Bilbo turns to the rest of his gruff amigos and says, ‘I do believe the worst is behind us’. With another two, three-hour movies to follow, we can only hope that Jackson spares us the same torment.