Director: Peter Jackson
‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’
Thus goes the first line of JRR Tolkien’s first trip to Hobbiton. It’s probably the same hole in which Peter Jackson has shoved his head to avoid all the discussion about how he shot his film, after having to defend it numerous times. Alas, Middle Earth faces a greater threat than either Sauron or Smaug. It is a heinous creature, threatening all things it encounters. Its name? High Frame Rate.
It’d be a hard-hearted punter who didn’t want to return to Middle Earth, even if only for the sake of nostalgia. The effect of The Lord of The Rings phenomenon ripples on, and the spirit of innovation and dogged imagination lives on in the man who brought it to the big screen with decided intent and to critical adulation (including a total of 17 Academy Awards across the trilogy). With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson seems intent on replicating his Rings success, to the point where The Hobbit follows many similar plot beats to The Fellowship of the Ring.
The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes to Hobbiton to seek assistance for an adventure. He chooses the unsuspecting Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and it’s not long before Bilbo is giving shelter to a band of dwarves about to march to reclaim their kingdom. The dwarves, thirteen in all, are an odd bunch and receive varying degrees of character development, though they do have a penchant for food, good times and more food. They are led by the prospective dwarf king Thorin Oakinshield (Richard Armitage), and the similarities between him and Aragorn are made abundantly clear. However, Oakenshield is no Aragorn and the dwarves are no Fellowship. A lack of distinct characters renders this shabby troop unmemorable (though James Nesbitt’s Bofur is a notable annoyance),but it does make McKellen and Freeman stand out. Gandalf fits McKellen like a glove, and after an all-too-brief prologue featuring Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the older Bilbo (Ian Holm), it’s good to have a familiar face guiding us through proceedings. That said, Freeman is great casting for the young Bilbo, combining the humour and wistfulness of Holm’s interpretation with his own brand of peeved worry that made him stand out in The Office.
After some lengthy persuading, Bilbo joins the dwarves and Gandalf on their quest, though his role is not clear from the outset. Their journey is long, expectedly panoramic and gratingly episodic. The band of misfits flit from giant trolls to wizards to Orcs, and all with little sense of progression. The returning elements are welcome once more (Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and the elven realm of Rivendell bring back good memories of Fellowship), but much of the rest is unmemorable, culminating in the dwarves stumbling into the underground lair of the goblins. This entire sequence is a kid-pleasing, CGI-heavy mad dash chase of the kind lesser Harry Potters would have squeezed in for the sake of an action sequence. Many times it feels like Jackson doesn’t seem to know when to put the CGI away and just let the characters exist. However, whilst the dwarves escape the goblins, Bilbo meets Gollum (brought to raspy life once again by Andy Serkis) in the film’s best scene, a tete-a-tete of eerie power presided over by the One Ring. It’s the closest we get to the magic of the original trilogy, and it takes a long time to get there. In their efforts to stretch the film to nearly three hours, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and Guillermo ‘I really should have directed this’ del Toro stuff the script until it’s bloated.
Compounding all these faults is the high frame rate, which reduces the film to looking like a cheap mid-afternoon ITV children’s drama. Any film which enhances the filmgoing experience should be lauded but, with its aspirations towards photorealism, shooting at 48fps is self-defeating. With this new technology, the make-up is visible on the actors’ faces, the sets look fake and the CGI (all of it!) looks like badly-moulded plastic. Experimentation is always worthwhile, but on this evidence 48fps is a most unwelcome development. There’s no point in creating magical realms when the visual magic is sucked out of it.
An Unexpected Journey may please the Tolkien purists, but the general masses that sent LOTR over the top will be disappointed by this ponderous and overly mannered of mini-epics. Both the padding and the photography bode ill for the following two installments. It’ll make a mint, but it’ll take a Balrog-sized miracle for The Hobbit to be embraced by fans in the same way as its predecessors.