Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Various Formats)

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The HobbitThe Pitch: Middle Earth, Episode 1: The Phantom Appendices.

The Review: Yes, for the second time in blockbuster film history we have the start of a prequel trilogy to an original trilogy, and we all remember how well that turned out. So, given that the plan wasn’t originally to even make this a trilogy, the first expectation going into The Hobbit: An Unexpected First Part Of A Trilogy is that it’s going to be something of an endurance test. It’s a strange state of affairs; the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy is so beloved by many that longer versions of the first three films were welcomed when they arrived on DVD. The first three films had 30, 42 and 50 minutes respectively added in when they hit home formats, but even so the commonest complaint about The Return Of The King is that it was too long, specifically with too many endings. It’s oddly symmetrical, then, that the beginning of this Middle Earth sextet suffers from the opposite problem of too many beginnings.

I count myself as a big fan of the original films, so I share the thrill of many to be back in this world, but it seems that Peter Jackson can’t bear to leave it, so keen is he to spend as much time in it as possible. The structure could be lifted almost directly from Fellowship: we get a scene setting montage, followed by a journey to Hobbiton, where a visit from Gandalf then spurs us into action. Where this whips along in the original, here it takes almost 45 minutes to get going, with an extended framing device bringing back old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) being fundamentally unnecessary, and setting that tone. When we have another extended edition waiting for us on DVD and Blu-ray, material like this should have been saved, as a lean cut of this film (conceivably still running at around two and a quarter hours) would have brought us back to Middle Earth perfectly and still allowed us to wallow and luxuriate in a cut around an hour longer at home. It wouldn’t be so frustrating – or obvious – if so much hadn’t been added in to get the running time to this length, including further committee meetings at Rivendell with Galadriel and Saruman and an additional revenge subplot featuring Azog The Destroyer which feels like a desperate attempt to add peril to the longer running time. It may also be an attempt to recapture more of the tone of the first three films, as while this is a children’s book most of the additions are of a more serious nature and attempt to add dramatic weight, when actually a little more levity would help to ease the passage of time.

Those even more in love with Middle Earth than me may not find themselves caring too much, for this is very much the Middle Earth we know and love, with familiar areas lovingly recreated and every aspect of the production reeking of the same quality that oozed out of the original trilogy. It’s just a shame that more of the running time isn’t spent on getting to know the new characters rather than lazily revisiting old ones: Ian McKellen has perfected the passive smug look of Gandalf The Grey and gets plenty of chances to roll it out, along with a few other clichés, including an interminable number of shots of characters running over mountains and even shots of characters extending one arm while crying “Noooo!” in slow motion. This does tend to overshadow the fresher elements, and if you can identify more than four, possibly even three, of the dwarves on sight after a single viewing then you’re doing better than I am. Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt and Ken Stott all make a moderate impression on this first outing, and there are a few other well-formed appearances from the likes of Barry Humphries as the CG Goblin King, but the other problem The Hobbit Part 1 suffers from is also its greatest asset.

For anyone that knows anything about the book, they’ll know that Chapter 5 is called Riddles In The Dark, and features the one appearance in this first Middle Earth story of Gollum. The effects work might have moved on in ten years, making Andy Serkis’ performance even more believable and more successfully bringing out the pathetic nature of the character, but it’s Serkis and Martin Freeman’s performances that make this scene such a success, playing out almost unbroken but leaving viewers dreadfully in suspense while waiting for its arrival. Freeman’s performance is one of the things that helps to moderate against that, proving even more successful as a hairy-footed nexus for the plot than Wood’s Frodo did in the original trilogy, a masterclass in emotion and comic timing. Crippling pacing and lack of momentum aside, there’s a lot to like here, and while the stakes aren’t as high yet or the urgency as compelling, those content to have a more gentle wander through Middle Earth should be generally satisfied. Let’s just hope that, as well as a dragon and a Bowman, we get to know a few more dwarves and a hobbit much better in the next instalment.

Why see it at the cinema: I wasn’t originally convinced by the quality of the CGI, but ten minutes of watching The Two Towers on TV when I came home from seeing this a second time quickly convinced me that the work of Weta and their colleagues has advanced significantly in the decade since LOTR. Due to the smaller scale nature of events, the big set piece here isn’t a Helm’s Deep or a Pelennor Fields but two characters in a cave, swapping riddles. That it still has the power to grip to the extent of the big battles is testament to the power of the story telling of both Tolkien and the four scriptwriters who’ve adapted his work, and if you’re any sort of fan of the original trilogy then seeing this in a cinema is a must. Exactly how you see it is more up for debate, however…

Why see it in 3D: Your first debate will be whether or not to see it in 3D. The style of the original, featuring lots of beauty passes of people running over half of New Zealand, lends itself extremely well to the needs of 3D, giving your eyes time to focus and get the perspective. However, where other directors such as James Cameron and Ang Lee have adapted their style to account for this need for longer shots and less frantic editing, Jackson is only partially successful on this front, with goblin fights sometime shot from above in single passes and working well, but conflicts on the move often featuring quick cuts and making the 3D pointless. The style of the films is there, but Jackson needs to give himself over to it even more for the next two films to make them truly need the 3D enhancement.

Why see it in HFR: Unless you’ve been living in a hobbit hole for the last couple of years, you’ll be aware that The Hobbit trilogy has been filmed at a higher frame rate. While varying frame rates aren’t uncommon on TV, it’s pretty certain that every film you see in a cinema will be shot and exhibited at 24 frames per second. The Hobbit doubles this to 48 (still a shade short of what our eyes effectively work at, which is about 55), and the two main arguments for doing this are for additional clarity of the image and to reduce the eye strain that 3D provides.

In absolute terms, HFR is a success on both counts: the image is sharper, with everything from the pores on Martin Freeman’s face to the wisps of hair on Gollum’s head leaping out of the screen and the CGI feeling more in keeping with the live action, and the 3D image seeming to leap off the screen even more, suffering less from motion blur. In relative terms, it’s pretty much a failure: this is a fantasy film, and making it look more real unwittingly has to make you work harder to wilfully suspend your disbelief, and since Jackson hasn’t yet nailed the editing and shot composition for 3D, making it less blurry feels like a cheat to avoid moderating his techniques for the format, and consequently doesn’t work.

Factor into that the fact that HFR doesn’t do anything to address either of the other main complaints about 3D itself (and when taken together, Life Of Pi did address them, only last week): it doesn’t in any way address the loss of light, so many sequences in caves are still frustratingly dark, and it doesn’t actually add to the storytelling in any noticeable way. While I would probably watch The Hobbit Part 2 in HFR if I was seeing 3D, nothing at the moment has convinced me that it’s a better experience than 2D. These things need time to bed in, but if someone doesn’t use this tool effective and quickly, it might just turn out to be an expensive gimmick.

Why see it in IMAX: This one’s a little easier: if you like seeing big images, then IMAX does the job, and the 70mm print I saw this on at the BFI IMAX in London really brought out the detail in some of the grander scenes such as the Rivendell stop-off. It’s immersive, but as it’s not been filmed on IMAX cameras, not essential.

The Score: 7/10

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