The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Some really nice film-making in here, but the non-Tolkien additions are weak.

Released in 2012, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 24 Jan 2013 by Scott Morris
The Hobbit image

There's an almost unbelievable number of aspects to consider about Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth, and a good half of them are fiddling around the edges of the film rather than anything directly to do with the flick's quality. I can think of so many places to start it's almost paralysing, so let's go with the most obvious and recap the story for the perhaps three or four people who do not know what The Hobbit entails.

You may, perhaps, already be familiar with Ian Holm's Bilbo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings, and if we're constraining ourselves briefly to the cinema end of things this counts as a prequel, telling how a much younger Bilbo (Tim from The Office) goes on an Unexpected Journey, adventuring off with a motley assortment of dwarves headed by ex-Prince of a pre-Dragonfucked Lonely Mountain Thorin (Richard Armitage) and wizard Gandalf Stormcrow-Greyhame (of the New Hampshire Stormcrow-Greyhames) (Ian McKellen), leading to the discovery of that there Ring that caused Frodo all that bother a few years back.

Controversy the first, I suppose, came from the expansion, or narrowing, depending on how you argue it, of the scope. If you're at all familiar with the dead tree versions of The Hobbit and the three parts of The Lord of the Rings, then you will notice a rather worrying heft discrepancy. Condensing the chunktacular Fellowship of the Ring and its siblings into one film apiece, even given their running times, and retaining the sense of the piece was arguably Jackson and Co's biggest achievement. Breaking the comparatively flyaway Hobbit into what I think I shall term a Multiload (shout out to the 8-bit tape loader Massive) was, well, not well received.

The first explanation that made some sense to me back when this was first touted as being split into two was that Jackson (or possibly Guillermo del Toro, the timeline for this is somewhat troublesome to recall) wanted to tell everything that's in Tolkien's story, and not have to rejigger and edit anything out. This has a certain logic and appeal to it, and I doubt most would grumble too much about that.

Of course, it didn't stay that way for long, and we're now in a position where Jackson has added in certain elements, reportedly in a bid to tie together this and his last trilogy better, or somewhat more cynically, to pad out things to better fit a three movie structure.

This requires a certain degree of testicular fortitude, it has to be said, bordering on the outright arrogance. Adding in a few chapters here and there to what's routinely considered one of the great works's of children's fiction? I'd imagine most are given to receive this rather more poorly.

They would not be without justification, as the most visible of these added elements are easily the weakest of The Hobbit. Thorin's been saddled with a resurgent goblin nemesis, thought vanquished some time ago. The freakishly sized Azog, killer of Thorin's forebears acts as a malignant driver of chase mechanisms in places where there is no real need of them, and rather transparently only present to allow for a few hero moments as the band oppose him and to distract you from the fact that for a film based on a story that's about defeating a dragon, there's precious little dragon-based activity.

Of the added elements, some are inoffensive, and largely logical, such as a meeting between Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Gladriel discussing Mirkwood's spider and necromonger problem. Some are fever-dream mental - I'm not sure fellow wizard Radagast the Brown was mentioned enough for me to form an impression of him, but even so it certainly wasn't "manic ex-Doctor Who goofball riding a rabbit-drawn sledge". As comic relief, I suppose that's excusable.

Azog's another matter, especially given the focus he's given. He's a paint job away from being the franchise's Darth Maul, a gurning action figure with no character or personality whatsoever. For this film's main villain, that's quite the problem, and we don't even have the relief of knowing that he won't return for the next film.

Thankfully, there's not a lot else that's wrong with the film. Like the book, I could have done without the singing, but I can't really complain about the performances or the pacing. Tim from The Office is a terrific Bilbo, and even over the course of this third of the book his character development is believable, and his relationship with McKelllen's Gandalf and Richard Armitage's Thorin works admirably. His scenes with Andy Serkis' CG alter-ego Gollum are almost worth the price of admission alone.

McKellen is effortlessly charming in the role, but at lot of the credit must be given to Armitage, combining Thorin's mixture of pride, responsibility, sense of loss and determination very well indeed.

Even knowing that it's a near-three hour film, I was rather surprised when the credits started rolling. It didn't feel anywhere near that long, and that's always a sign of enjoyment. While visually, plainly there's similarities with the look of LotR, the tone is handled rather differently. Much as I loved LotR, it did have a tendency to swing wildly between slapstick and grimdark melodrama, often in the same scene - witness the fight with the cave troll in the Mines of Moria, where within a span of three minutes you've got Sam fighting an Orc with a frying pan before blubbering over an apparently dead Frodo.

Everything is much more consistent and lighter in The Hobbit, as perhaps befits a child's book. Arguably it goes too far in this direction. Even when characters are in mortal peril it can feel cartoon-ish, particularly when it's happening to the more clownish of characters. Perhaps more variation would enhance The Hobbit, but the lack of it apparently hasn't detracted from it.

Overall, I heartily enjoyed the eighth of a day I spent with the film, and I would have no hesitation in recommending that anyone do so. I mention this now because I'm about to descend into the murky realms of technical formats, which may be of niche interest. Your mileage may vary, and your home may be at risk if you do not keep up repayments on it.

So, it cannot have escaped anyone's notice while browsing the cinema listings that The Hobbit is available in more formats than previously thought possible. You can have it in three dimensions or two. Conventionally sized or IMAXified. Of course, and most controversially, in conventional twenty four frames per second or forty eight. And in most combinations of the above. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

I parked my copious ass in front of the 3D 48 FPS incarnation, and to cover the devil we are more familiar with first, the 3D work is decidedly okay. This instantly puts it up with the best 3D films made. It is not eye-poppingly noticeable, because it's largely restraining itself from needlessly throwing things directly at you, which is commendable. The problem with eschewing such gimmickry and using it for the function God surely intended, that being to aid immersion by seeming more like reality by giving it a depth of field, doesn't work, because the technology isn't good enough. The current state-of-the-art 3D experience is a shadow of a pale imitation of your actual 3D that you see with your eyes and that, so it's completely pointless as anything other than shallow, novel spectacle.

Jackson's restraint, while much preferable to the alternative, has made the 3D entirely discardable, and while I've not seen the 2D print I can imagine that the usual benefit of a brighter, more vibrantly coloured film is a much better aid to immersion than uncomfortable glasses. This, really, is less of a complaint about The Hobbit as it is about the film industry, and it's certainly not a new one around these parts, so I shan't labour it any further.

The forty eight frames per second thing, however, I'm much more sold on. It really does looks great, and somehow much more detailed, contrary to any technical argument my brain can come up with given that it hasn't increased the resolution any. At any rate, the relatively still scenes look nicely crisp, and the action sequences look far more fluid than we've seen before. I really hope we get to see a chop-sockey film, in 48 fps, as that should look superplus great.

Some say the 48fps process looks like telly. I assume they have televisions that are thirty foot across, but I think anyone less blessed in the telly department will have no trouble recognising that they are watching a film. It's not a film that looks like film traditionally looked, but once upon a time neither was colour, or sound, or motion.

There are always complaints over new things from the curmudgeonly, and of course I'm no exception - witness my rants over 3D films here and review passim. However, that's based on repeated experience - I've yet to see more than a handful of films where the 3D is any aid at all to immersion in the story, so I think it's fair to write it off as a gimmick.

I think that the 48fps technology is far better placed to help us suspend our disbelief by looking closer to reality, and that this process has legs. That said, I'm not going to give any definitive view on a sample of one, but I'm hopeful that other examples will soon exist for us to look at. There's a good chance a decade from now we'll be looking at those who cling to 24fps at the gold standard for film the way we currently look at music lovers who proclaim vinyl to be the be all and end all. Alternatively, we'll have forgotten the experiment ever happened. Time, I suppose, will tell.

Peter Jackson
Cast list:
Ian McKellen (Gandalf)
Mar-Tim from The Office Freeman (Bilbo)
Richard Armitage (Thorin)
Ken Stott (Balin)