DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey plays its valuable nostalgia card early and frequently thereafter. Director Peter Jackson uses the opening scenes to revisit Hobbiton literally moments before the events of Fellowship of the Ring, with Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) preparing for a certain eleventy-first birthday party. Bilbo is trying to put the finishing touches on his memoirs, which also include a very thorough history of dwarven society for some reason. The extended prologue over and done with, the film jumps back a half-century. A younger Bilbo (a charming Martin Freeman) is asked by everyone’s favourite wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to accompany the friendly conjurer on an adventure. The hobbit semi-politely declines. But when a dozen hungry dwarves arrive on his doorstep later that evening, Bilbo eventually agrees to embark on the eponymous journey to confront a legendary dragon. An eventful and extended saunter across Middle Earth inevitably follows.
The most immediately noteworthy aspects of the film are visual, and unfortunately it’s a real step down from the beautifully realised preceding trilogy, at least on Cineworld Dublin’s new and misleadingly labelled ‘IMAX’ screen. Shot on two-dozen RED Epic cameras – a more than capable camera with the right post-production tinkering – the film looks distractingly digital from the off. Those who lament the decline of film grain will be appalled here. The film is riddled with unconvincing CGI (from hedgehogs to landscapes) and cartoonish setpieces. The sweeping landscapes and beautiful miniatures of Lord of the Rings are sorely missed. As for the much-heralded 48 frames-per-second presentation? For an hour or more it is intensely disorientating – intriguing yet undeniably distracting. However, given the film’s technical shortcomings, I would argue that this was not the film to introduce the new technology with – especially when the nasty artefacts of 3D neuter the benefits of high framerate motion. In trying to increase his film’s naturalism and sense of immersion, Peter Jackson has ironically only drawn attention to its artificiality. It’s rare to criticise a film for looking too clean, but here it’s a warranted complaint. It really looks like a bad TV show. More traditional screenings may look better.
An Unexpected Journey’s second serious problem is the one many of us feared – the film’s running time is bulked up beyond all reason. Stuffed with insufferable Middle Earth lore and uninteresting characters, the film’s pacing has undoubtedly suffered from the decision to craft three lengthy films out of one brief novel. Several times the movie grinds to a halt as a result of clunky exposition and misjudged tangents, especially during turgid flashbacks and a dull revisit to Rivendell. The dwarves are –unavoidably – not the Fellowship, while two too many battles conclude with allies ‘unexpectedly’ swooping in to save the day (the old Helms Deep trick). Tonally, the film aims for a more lighthearted adventure than LotR, but alas the jokes consistently fall flat. The cameos from familiar faces add further bulk to an already bloated production, while the decision to have the vast majority of adversaries speak in ludicrous cockney accents diminishes the sense of threat significantly.
Still, there are moments of respite amidst an avalanche of disappointment. The last hour is a significant improvement over the preceding ninety minutes. One stormy and mountainous battle is genuinely spectacular, while recognisable music cues will tickle many viewers’ nostalgia bones (the score on the whole is a tad incessant though). Although it could use tighter editing – like most everything in this regrettably paced film – the third act reappearance of Gollum is terrific, and amplified by a go-for-broke motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. Freeman is a welcome new addition to a massive ensemble, if relegated to the sidelines far too often. McKellen is reliably excellent. A cliffhanger ending also teases that this saga will have at least one memorable and stunningly rendered computer-generated creation.
You have no doubt seen worse films than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Many Tolkien fans will likely revel in the excessive fan-service offered by this lore-soaked prequel. And yet this reviewer cannot help but feel a sense of profound disappointment at Peter Jackson’s misjudged attempt to recapture the magic of Middle Earth. Worst of all, you know there’s a better, shorter film in here somewhere. Another six hours of this is, unfortunately, not the most enticing of prospects. An Unexpected Journey proves to be unexpectedly and frustratingly dull.