The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey ****
Directed by Peter Jackson
Running Time 2 hr. 50 min.
Starring – Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and James Nesbitt
PETER Jackson returns to Middle-Earth nine years after The Return of the King, the concluding feature in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now the director returns to the world he so vividly created, with a new cinematic trilogy, based on Tolkien’s children’s tale, The Hobbit.
In a brave move the director has expanded the shortest of Tolkien’s novels into three separate features, the first of which, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is now on general release.
Set 60 years before the events of LOTR, The Hobbit tells the tale of how a home-loving hobbit from the Shire, Bilbo Baggins, embarked on an adventure, accompanied by a cunning wizard and a company of Dwarves. Although not a direct prequel to the events of LOTR, The Hobbit features several plot elements that are expanded upon in Tolkien’s later material.
The film has suffered from considerable pre-production hell, mostly caused by the financial problems of the feature’s distributor, MGM, but Peter Jackson stayed the course, with his labour of love. Originally only involved in a producing capacity on the project, the New Zealander stepped in to the director’s chair when the continued setbacks forced the original directorial choice, Guillermo Del Toro to walk away. It would have been intriguing to see Del Toro’s vision for The Hobbit ,but it’s only befitting that Jackson was given the chance to return to Middle-Earth one last time.
Many of the previous trilogy’s cast return have reprised their roles for this new trilogy. Including Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett, surprisingly even Christopher Lee returns. The British actor was none pleased when his scenes were cut from the theatrical cut of The Return of the King and refused to attend the film’s première in London. Ian Holms and Elijah Woods also make brief cameo appearances at the beginning of the feature, but the role of young Bilbo Baggins went to British actor, Martin Freeman. Freeman is perfectly cast as the young hobbit, who has become too fond of the comforts home. Like Elijah Wood’s Frodo in LOTR, Bilbo is coaxed into going on an adventure by cunning wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian Mckellen).
Jackson agreed to wait on Freeman as he wrapped up filming on TV series, Sherlock. It was a brave move that further held up the film’s shooting in New Zealand. But it was well worth the wait, much like his performance as Arthur Dent in the underwhelming Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the actor brings a perfect sense of awkward Britishness to the role of Bilbo. Considerable praise also must also go to McKellen, the character of Gandalf has a bigger role within the narrative of The Hobbit and the actor is clearly enjoying the opportunity to return to such an iconic role.
At nearly three hours long, the feature is quite sluggish at times, taking almost an hour to really get into its stride. Considering there’s 13 new characters on-screen, it’s understandable that Jackson has taken some time to introduce the company of dwarves. The 13 lead by Richard Armitage’s Character Thornin are trying to take back their home, the Lonely Mountain from a monstrous Dragon, known as Smaug.
Other than Armitage’s character, many of the dwarves didn’t really stand out for me, other than Northern Ireland’s very own James Nesbitt, not least due to his bizarre headwear choice. But the Ballymena born actor has some genuinely lovely moments within the feature, particularly near the film’s climax with a rather homesick Bilbo.
Despite the sluggish pace there are some fantastic moments within the feature, particularly the game of riddles between Gollum and Bilbo and the climactic battle sequence was simply stunning. However I was a tad disappointed at how Jackson visualised Bilbo’s encounter with a group of mountain trolls. It was one of my favourite moments from the novel, but it just didn’t work for me onscreen.
As for the Higher Frame Rate the director used for the film’s 3D effects, It takes some time to get used to, at times the footage felt sped up, like an old Benny Hill video. Jackson used a HFR of 48 frames per second on-screen, rather than the cinematic norm of 24 FPS, as a way of compensating for the light reduction issue that has plagued many 3D features. Once my eyes got used to the format, I was surprised at how much I liked the look of the feature. Occasionally though the HFR does cheapens some of the feature’s visuals, failing to do justice to some of the impressive special effects. But the print felt considerably brighter than any other recent 3D feature I’ve watched recently.
Jackson said recently he didn’t want to make features just to be watched by viewers on iPads and the HFR version of the feature does feel like a fantastically fresh cinematic experience. Whether it’s truly is the future of 3D, only time and viewers will decide. For purely nostalgic reasons, I still prefer the 2D print of the film, as it’s in keeping with Jackson’s earlier work.
The main criticism I have with Jackson’s feature is that he can’t decide whether he’s making a movie based on The Hobbit or trying to make a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. By fleshing out the feature he’s slowed the pace considerably. Despite this, I have to admit I really enjoyed this first instalment within the new trilogy. It may lack the cinematic grandeur of The Fellowship of the Ring, which itself was rather slow-paced, but An Unexpected Journey left me wanting more.
Like Sir Ridley Scott, Jackson has created a living breathing world with his vision of Middle-Earth, and it’s great to be back, I’m already counting the days until next Christmas, when the next instalment hits cinemas . Fans will hopefully get their first look at Smaug, one of Tolkien’s most vivid creations.
Review By William McClean