THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Release Date: 13 December 2012 (UK)
Director: Peter Jackson
Running Time: 169 Minutes
Starring: Ian Mckellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Andy Serkis
Screening Reviewed: Royal Film Performance/London Premiere (48 FPS 3D), Theatrical Release (24 FPS)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
As Peter Jackson set out on his own unexpected journey to adapt The Hobbit to film, he faced an almost impossible challenge. The incomparable achievement of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy - record-shattering, Oscar-hoarding, smash-hit success with Tolkien enthusiasts, critics and layman moveigoers alike - set expectations at a stratospheric height across-the-board. Not only that, but Jackson and collaboraters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens faced the task of producing engaging and resonant motion pictures in the shadow of Rings with much lighter source material which, despite purists clamouring to have it remain unaltered, would have produced a far more inconsequential and trivial outing had it been adapted without any of An Unexpected Journey’s elaborations and explorations into character and exposition.
As the film develops, key set pieces from the book are brought to life with Peter Jackson’s trademark flair and invention - a suitably farcical and comedic take on a sequence featuring three familiar-looking trolls and a more rounded and character-driven return to the Elven valley of Rivendell through to an engaging and action-packed final reel where the film bowls through encounters and showdowns in goblin town through to a fiery treetop finale on the slopes of the misty mountains. ‘Riddles in the Dark’, quite possibly the most iconic chapter from the book, also features here, and is certainly a highlight, with the writing, directing and performances being easily on par with anything that came before in Rings. It is a taught, engaging sequence that Jackson nails perfectly, bandying as it does with comedy, tension and danger and a welcome return to Andy Serkis’s terrific portrayal of Gollum reminding us once again why the character was such an enormous success and fan favourite from the Rings trilogy.
Whilst there is great fun to be had with riddles, trolls, goblin towns, elves and a hilarious CG appearance by Barry Humphries as a bloated, orating goblin monarch, not all of the key sequences and set pieces are as effective. A mountainside encounter with sparring stone giants is visually stunning and beautifully designed but strangely devoid of any palpable tension or danger, feeling far more rushed than a similar (and far more tense) sequence on a crumbling Moria staircase in Fellowship of the Ring. Similarly, an early encounter with Wargs prior to the company arriving at Rivendell feels perfunctory, somewhat haphazardly constructed and redundant when it is repeated far more effectively later in the film, seemingly there to solely add some momentum to the first half of the film. Occasionally Jackson also takes the action sequences into realms of unnecessary excess, with moments such as a collapsing walkway in Goblin Town in particular severing audience connection and being a little too extreme and goofy in comparison to what we are used to with the more tangible reality of Middle Earth. Similarly, a subplot featuring a hunting party of Orcs and the elevation of the antagonistic Azog is understandable yet a little overdrawn and repetitive, as are the numerous occasions where the resolution of action sequences or set pieces (usually due to the arrival of Gandalf or the intervention of the dwarven company) robs much of the action of tension or a satisfying conclusion. When Thorin, Gandalf and co can blitz their way through a seemingly endless onslaught of Goblins, Wargs and other nasties with nary a scratch, it's difficult to feel as fraught as we were when following the same or similar characters through the plights of Moria or Helm's Deep back during Rings. This is mostly forgivable, however, as the next two films will feature events that are far grander in scope and scale than what the team had to work with on Journey so hopefully the excess will not be needed, and credit must nevertheless go to PJ and his team for crafting such a bold, exciting and genuinely epic outing from the relatively sedate and less grandiose chapters in the novel that are adapted here, even if on occasion it is a little too over-the-top for its own good.
Radagast the Brown, played with inimitable oddball charm by Sylvester McCoy, is also given more than his mere mention in the original story, and although he only makes a handful of appearances, he is a fun, original addition to the tale and is weaved in with the wider story that continually distracts Gandalf and will no doubt continue to do so for the films that are to come. The character, his subplot and some of the choices such as his Rhosgobel rabbit sled are some of the more child-friendly and quirky parts of the film, but despite the extremity and potentially divisive approach to the character, it is nice to have the surprise and freshness of a new wizard character, and in being more light-hearted and humorous than your average Middle-Earthian, fits in with the lighter tone of Journey well. It will be interesting to see the eventual arc and fate that the character is given across the trilogy when considering his complete absence in Rings yet already established prominence in the tale and worldly goings-on of The Hobbit.
The returning cast and new additions may give good Middle Earth, but the real draw and stars of Journey are our central band of heroes - Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and company, bolstered as they are by uniformly impeccable performances. Martin Freeman makes a superb Bilbo Baggins, brilliantly capturing nuances of Ian Holm’s original performance whilst adding an energy and charm of his own. The character is at once both fresh yet familiar, and a very different flavour of protagonist to Frodo, once again befitting the tone and nature of this tale. Ian Mckellen is superlative as always - wily, knowing and authoritative in his return as Gandalf the Grey, dominating practically every scene he is in be it with shakespearean bravura or the merest and most subtle of knowing glances. Much of the weight of guiding the audience throughout the film falls once again on Mckellen’s shoulders, and he once again wraps his tongue around the languages and mythos with relish and conviction, an incomparably excellent guide to the wonders and ways of Middle Earth and Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s imaginations. In Thorin Oakenshield, Richard Armitage rounds out our core trio of protagonists with what is easily one of the films most effective and layered performances; stung by tragedy, brimming with pride, subdued arrogance and rage, and in this regal yet accessible and empathetic figure Thorin presents the films most intriguing and accomplished of the new additions to the cast of characters. Thorin is one of the few characters the original story takes on any sort of arc or meaningful development, and coupled with Jackson, Walsh and Boyens’ brilliant instincts for character, and Armitage’s already excellent portrayal, one can’t help but feel incredibly excited and anticipatory for what is to come with the character in the next two films.
Technically, it is unsurprising that with the return of much of the wizardry and artistry of the Rings trilogy and the masters at Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, An Unexpected Journey is a visual and technical triumph. The attention to detail and craftsmanship on display remains as bewilderingly impressive as it did when we bid farewell to Frodo and pals back in 2003, and visually the new Hobbit trilogy looks set to marry with Rings perfectly. There is a level of care, passion and attention to detail here that few blockbusters of this or any genre can match, with the vast majority of the set decoration, costume design, visual effects work and cinematography being once again of an industry-leading standard. Everyone has heard the praises sung of New Zealand’s stunning landscape ad infinitum, but it is true that Middle Earth itself is as much a character and signature of these films as anything else, and Jackson again goes to town in using the vistas and wilderness of his homeland to bring Middle Earth to life with sweeping majesty and vigour. Likewise, the locations produced digitally are equally impressive, from a richer, golden-hued return to the autumnal beauty of Rivendell through to the winding, labyrinthine wooden metropolis of Goblin town. And even despite the generally unconvincing wargs, the unncessarily-digital Azog (who would have worked far better as a prosthetic) or the odd questionable Radagast composite there is some remarkable CG character work on display, most notably with the mountain goblins, the aforementioned stone giants, Humphries’ Great Goblin, the trollshaw trolls and of course Gollum, all of whom are exceptionally and charismatically animated, and are genuinely some of the finest digital effects work yet seen on screen. Howard Shore provides another beautiful, operatic score, blending returning leitmotifs and cues from his previous work on the series with some gorgeous new themes for the new characters and locales we experience. Wonderful moments such as Bilbo’s opportunity to slay or spare Gollum are not only written, directed and act to perfection, but are also underlined by a moving return to the same musical cues used in Fellowship when Gandalf recounted the moment to Frodo.
Which leads to the thorny issue of frame rate. Much debate and discussion surrounds Peter Jackson’s somewhat controversial decision to shoot this new trilogy at the doubled frame rate of 48 frames per second. The effect of doing so is an almost pristine clarity and crispness to the frame, but the arguable downside of this is the film losing the vintage filmic sheen, looking more akin to a super HD television production. Having seen the film both in 48 fps 3D at it’s UK premiere and then 24 fps 2D for the purposes of this review, it is actually somewhat difficult to advise which experience should be opted for. 48 fps does give a distinctly different viewing experience, one that is definitely jarring and disconcerting at first, and certainly takes some minor adjustment to get used to. The downside of this new format is that, as mentioned, the film can occasionally be robbed of that quintessential cinematic feel, an aesthetic that a classical fantasy tale such as this does seem perfectly fitted to, and some scenes look and feel much more artificial as a result, conditioned as we are for a certain grade of image on our cinema screen. In addition, 48fps draws considerable attention to anything that is false or poorly rendered within the frame, with some moments of visual effects work looking considerably less believable and standout (for the wrong reasons) in 48 fps than they did in the latter 24 fps standard showing. Even minor enhancements, such as the CG plates and cutlery being thrown about in Bag End, register as effects work far more than they did in 24 fps. Interestingly though, the opposite was true with some of the more impressive and accomplished effects work - CG creations such as the Great Goblin, his minions and the trollshaw trolls all looked considerable more tangible, physical and real at the higher frame rate - simply looking and feeling more integrated and part of the world around them. This is particularly true of Gollum, who, in 48 fps, was the single most impressive and convincing visual effects work I have ever witnessed on screen. Additionally, some of the more kinetic and dramatic visual moments are far more engrossing and arresting than when they are viewed normally. As such, 48 fps is something of an oddity to consider, and definitely a curiosity on whether or not to recommend. The 24 fps was a much more consistent and comfortable viewing experience, but at the expense of some of the genuinely stunning moments that really leapt from the screen and amazed at the higher frame rate. Ultimately, it seems prudent that the standard accepted frame rate is a safer recommendation for the majority of standard moviegoers, but for those who are more technically minded or appreciative, or perhaps wish for something of a more innovative and original cinematic experience, there is still plenty to recommend and be impressed by with 48 fps, in particular its notable improvement of the depth and quality of 3D technology. Just don’t go in expecting a traditional moviegoing experience though, as it generally feels somewhat alien and jarring from the offset.
Regardless of what format you opt to watch it in, be re-assured that Journey is an accomplished, entertaining and extremely welcome return to Middle Earth. It is far from a perfect movie, and falters and missteps in ways the Lord of the Rings trilogy generally avoided doing so, but this is still bold, imaginative and exciting filmmaking and leaps and bounds ahead of anything the genre has offered of late, particular with this years fantasy output including such drivel as Wrath of the Titans, John Carter and Snow White and the Huntsman. There are some brilliant foundations being lain here for what promises to be another dazzling, epic trilogy at the hands of a team of individuals who clearly have a great deal of respect and love for, not to mention an expert knowledge of, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and continue to demonstrate keen, audience-friendly instincts as writers and makers of cinema. With terrific central performances, a lighter, fun and kinetic flavour, and plenty of narrative set-up for what is yet to come, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks set to be the start of something very ‘precious’ indeed...