The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Director - Peter Jackson
Country - USA, New Zealand
Starring - Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage
Running Time - 169 minutes
A curious Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, journeys to the Lonely Mountain with a vigorous group of Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug.
As the world rapidly uploads itself to the digital space, there is a sense that the cinema has come full circle. A machine art form for the machine age, when it began in the late 19th century people immediately recognized its potential to take us to the world unseen. We could travel to every part of the globe through a make-shift theatre set up in the back of a gymnasium. Now it is the computer screen that draws the minds of millions every day. With it, the cinema has moved towards the digital. By that I do not mean the rise of digital cameras and projectors, but the landscape itself. For the first time, and with a sizeable enough budget, film makers can capture the magic not just of our own world, but of any one imagined complete with lens flare and digital gloss through a recliner chair in an office building.
Perhaps there is no finer moment to illustrate this evolution than when Ian McKellen's Gandalf looks down at a young Bilbo Baggins and states with a distinct lack of irony; 'The real world is not in your books, it's out there.'
The reason that Jackson's Ring trilogy was such a defining moment in cinema was because of how tangible it was. He drew on the beauty of New Zealand's landscape and a balance between practical and computer effects to create a world that was both believable and fantastical. With the advancements of CGI even since the end of The Return of the King, Jackson is able to create a much more expressive Middle-Earth for prequel The Hobbit. The landscape is more vibrant, the miniature ('bigatures') sets are replaced with digital ones and every mildly recognizable British TV actor gets a fake nose. Unfortunately with this reliance on computer effects, the authenticity has gone. You no longer feel Middle Earth as a real world, but a product of digital conception, expertly crafted but a product none the less. One could argue that this is a younger, more innocent Middle Earth that has not been tainted with the destructive allegorical evil of the Ring trilogy yet and therefore the more colourful look is suited, indeed Tolkien's book is a more child-aimed affair. However Jackson draws attention to its connection with Rings, coupled with some of the darker side elements and the result is that The Hobbit has a rather uneven tone and visual disconnection.
This is very much a prequel to the trilogy and an older Bilbo, initially played by Ian Holm, pops up to tie the two together. Make no mistake, although Frodo appears, this is Bilbo's story. There's a terrific shot early on that cements this as Frodo steps out of Bag End, a wide shot shows a hobbit in the distance striding through the landscape, walking stick in hand. Before panning out to reveal Frodo enthusiastically check the mail box for invitation responses, with it, the baton has been handed back so speak. There is a freedom to this journey due to the lack of 'the one ring' (at least in a significant sense) and Martin Freeman isn't quite the wet blanket that Elijah Wood was. Watching him gradually slide, or more appropriately, trip into the role of unlikely hero is very natural. His courageous, yet rash actions and errors in judgement give away his inexperience, and Freeman shrinks into the role, frequently letting the others take over the action, but his moment will come in due time.
The band of Dwarves that make up the group offer up plenty of entertaining interactions and riffs, even though you'll really only remember the names of about five. There is an uneasy feeling that hangs over this film that their quest just isn't that interesting. This feeling is shared most of all by Jackson who includes a variety of subplots, including an intriguing incident involving the rumoured emergence of a necromancer, which I imagine will be handled in the sequel to come. It is as if the movie is unsure of itself and looking to over compensate, it leaves itself rather bloated.
At nearly three hours long, it has to be said that it is just too long. The opening half hour amounts to nothing more than descriptions of cutlery and sing-alongs. The pace gradually increases as the film progresses, but it is constantly being interrupted by establishing shots, flashbacks and, of course, the arbitrary trip to Rivendell for which critic Bob Chipman rightly describes as 'The High Council of Exposition.' Make no mistake, once we leave the Shire this isn't a slow film, it's very busy and littered with action, even to a fault. Some have been written in, some are smaller scale skirmishes that have been expanded to full scale battles; they tick the boxes for sensational excitement, but end up feeling quite repetitive and contrived. The worst of which involves the mountain our heroes are traversing becoming a giant stone monster itself, which might be the most overt artificial lengthening sequence I've ever seen. The real highlight is undeniably Bilbo and Gollum's game of riddles, which despite being intense and darkly funny, only enhances the feeling that this is a step down from that series.
Much has been made of the 48 frames per second format; I for one cannot comment on how it looks yet, defiantly I went with the 24-2D version. I am planning on seeing it for comparison, but impressions I've heard have ranged from apathetic to bad. Really I don't see this being the next step for cinema as Jackson intended and I wonder how much more complicated things will get for the average movie goer.
There is some excellent film making here, flashes of the brilliance that made Jackson's Lord of the Rings a classic of epic storytelling, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is too bloated, too indulgent and simply just not as interesting. It has neither the impact, nor organic design of its predecessors, and one cannot help but make the comparison. At least now that the characters and set up has been properly established, the next instalments will be a complete return to form. As it is however, you cannot help but wonder how co-writer Del Toro's would compare. A shadow has been cast over Middle Earth, but it is one made up of code and pixels, it looms towards us, a warning of this new cinema at a speed of 48 (or 24) frames per second.