No medium can transport you to another world so fully as cinema and with effects wizard Peter Jackson at the helm the experience can be utterly enchanting. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a triumph in this regard and with The Hobbit, he is pushing the boundaries of digital technology to even more distant realms. So, why does it look like a glorified home video?
If you elect to see An Unexpected Journey in 3D, you will experience motion at 48 frames per second (compared to the standard 24) which draws you deeper into the action. Even the opening dinner party at Bilbo Baggins’ cosy Hobbit hole is made to feel like a rollercoaster ride. But the hitch is that it brings reality too close, too sharply defined, giving the feeling that you’ve accidentally stumbled into dress rehearsals and spoiled the magic of seeing the film as it was intended.
The much-hyped super-kinetic action also takes a while to kick in. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) doesn’t set a hairy foot beyond the gates of Bag End for almost half-an-hour, instead forced to entertain 13 warrior Dwarves who are en route to the reclaim their homeland. In this first of three instalments, Jackson is more concerned with Bilbo’s evolution from anxious homebody to war hero. Thankfully, Freeman is a charismatic lead, employing that familiar look of weary bemusement (perfected on The Office) to offer a humorous counterpoint to all the growly doom-mongering. That’s left to Richard Armitage as the Dwarves’ leader Thorin, throwing looks of blue steel at the wimpy little hobbit.
T’is the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan matching Freeman for dry wit) who insists that Bilbo is vital to their quest to reclaim ‘the heart’ of The Lonely Mountain from Smaug, the dragon. And after much hemming and hawing – and a superfluous singsong around the fireplace – they eventually mount up and sally forth. Naturally, the road ahead through stunning mountains is littered with ‘orrible Orcs, trolls and goblins and Jackson exploits that 48fps to craft some breath-taking set-pieces, the most exciting of which sees those mountains come to anthropomorphic life and knock each other to pieces.
Middle-earth aficionados can revel in other sights too, like a pit-stop at the Elven garrison of Rivendell where Galadriel (a misty-eyed Cate Blanchett) foreshadows things to come. There’s a teasing glimpse of the Necromancer, too, who is voiced (along with Smaug) by Benedict Cumberbatch, though he doesn’t serve much of a purpose here and Sherlock fans will be left wanting of a face-off between the erstwhile detective and his sidekick.
One of the big highlights is Bilbo’s life-or-death battle of wits with Gollum. Andy Serkis steals the scene emoting the creature’s terrible desperation, sneaky cynicism and tragic self-pity by quick turns, every nuance brilliantly captured by Jackson in those goggling CG eyes. The confrontation also provides the film with a climactic moment for Bilbo – not just because he takes that precious ring, unwitting of its power – but because he must choose whether Gollum lives or dies.
In choosing to split the book across three films, Jackson is forced to engineer another grand finale from a minor thread and picks a skirmish with the Orcs. But, it doesn’t quite pay off. Bilbo is finally given a chance to prove his courage, but it’s Thorin who is laying ghosts to rest and the emotional impact is muted by the fact that, in the build-up, Jackson can only invest limited time in drawing out Thorin’s personal demons. After all, the film is already approaching three hours, so the Dwarf’s violent backstory is slotted in with flashbacks, usually when the film needs a burst of adrenalin. In fact, it slows the pace by veering off the main track.
Those who treasure the books of JRR Tolkien may approve of Jackson’s determination to amp up every detail of his work, but casual fans might feel that he is pushing too hard and too far; spreading the plot too thin and throwing too much light on the picture with his superfast shutter speed. Jackson has made a great film, but it’s hiding inside a much bigger, brighter and only quite good one. By bringing it to a sudden finish without a proper resolution, he risks having filmgoers stagger out of the dark like the bemused Bilbo, eyes wide and lost in a daze.