The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

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Review NP Horton 10 Dec 2012 - 06:06

Does Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, deliver on its promise? Here's our review...

Forgive us for starting this review by talking technical details, but it’s necessary. For the main talking point after watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in its intended 48fps, isn’t unfortunately about the skill of the adaptation, the epic sweep of the much loved story, or Peter Jackson’s successful return to Middle Earth. Instead, it's about how much like a cheap TV soap opera much of it looks like.

The suspension of disbelief is what cinema is built upon. Whether it is simply accepting one person can pretend to be another, or something as grandiose as believing a man can fly, films are nothing without it. And this suspension of disbelief is one step closer to being ripped away by High Frame Rate (HFR). It essentially makes most of the film look completely unrealistic and fake, which in a grand fantasy film is not something you want. While it works superbly in the large scale set-pieces and with CGI, removing the boundaries between what is model work and what is computer generated, whenever it cuts back to the actors you are instantly back in the studio with them, complete with terrible lighting and obvious prosthetics, and away from Middle Earth. It’s the first thing you notice from the very first scene, with a jerky motion blur apparent in many of the actors movements. You'll barely be able to get used to it over the three hours of the film, and as much as we like seeing every pore of Martin Freeman’s face, this is a film best watched with the more traditional filmic substance of 24fps.

Which is a real shame, as The Hobbit: An Unxpected Journey is a triumph in almost every other regard. If you are a Lord Of The Rings fan, you'll be in heaven. Capturing the spirit and tone of the children’s source novel perfectly, The Hobbit is a much lighter affair than its portentous forbearer, but at the same time is obviously of the same world, albeit a world which is not yet under the dark threat of Sauron.

Telling the story of Thorin Oakenshield’s quest to drive the dragon Smaug from his ancient home of Erebor (aka The Lonely Mountain), it is a tale of accepting adventure, and becoming the person or hobbit that’s inside of you. The film is at once familiar and excitingly new, embodied in the character of Bilbo Baggins played by both Ian Holm and Martin Freeman. While Holm is the same Bilbo we know and love, Freeman brings a welcome adventurous sensibility to him, a hobbit who’s not afraid to go out and get things done, and the obvious model for Frodo. He’s been made to be a bit of action hero in parts, but Freeman handles everything thrown at him with aplomb, and giving the audience the perfect introduction to the familiar yet different film world.

The dwarves too are expanded upon. Not just called upon to be the comedy relief of Gimli, they get a back-story and a depth. While it’s hard to keep track of who’s who in the twelve of them, they each get their own little moment to shine, and prove to be a far more riotous bunch of travelling companions than the Fellowship. There’s much more of a sense of fun about them too, even with Richard Armitage’s Thorin glowering every chance he can get. They’re not the only new faces either, as Sylvester McCoy appears as Radagast the Brown, a slightly odd wizard who discovers the return of the Necromancer. It’s a manic, excitable, enjoyable turn that sums up the tone of the movie – lighter, more carefree, but with a sense of menace just around the corner.

Returning characters are also given their dues, but luckily not in a Star Wars prequel shoe-horned in kind of way. It helps that the film is based on a strong pre-existing book, and so the characters have set roles to play and don’t feel extraneous to the plot, but there was always that slight worry.

Gandalf the Grey is back in action, and it’s a treat to have him return. Sir Ian McKellen is clearly enjoying every moment, and if Bilbo is the heart of the movie, then Gandalf is the soul. As well as a great face-off against the Goblin King (which is easily the best sequence viewed in HFR, marrying together actors, CGI, and models in a seamless and spellbinding way) he also gets to flex his dramatic chops in a sequence with the White Council, one of the scenes taken from the Appendices. Meeting with Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman, they foreshadow all the terrible things that are about to befall Middle Earth. It’s brilliant to hear Christopher Lee again, and his Saruman has lost none of his dark power, even if he is ‘good’ this time round. However, the most excited buzz went round the screening room when Gollum came on-screen, as tragic, evil and pathetic as ever, and in possession of the one ring.

Some may take issue with the film’s length and slow start, but this reviewer loved it. If you’re a fan of the extended editions of LOTR, then you’ll appreciate the time it takes. Stretching the slim book to a trilogy is obviously going to leave the films with some pacing issues, and we go about 30 pages in three hours. While it does take its time to get going with the quest, it never outstays its welcome. We could have easily sat there and watched more, and the last 45 minutes are a blast, with an ending that makes you want it to be next December immediately.

What is more of a concern is the obvious CGI fest this film is compared to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy – the are a lot monsters which don’t exist outside of a computer, and as one of the main strengths of the previous films was its monster make-up and tactile nature, this is to its detriment. Especially as outside of Gollum, some of the CG work is not brilliant. Which is shame, as The Hobbit often conveys a sense of wonder and marvel that is absent from the grown-up sequels, and which is often truly captivating.

It’s a very good movie, but not a great one. It lacks the stand-out jaw dropping moments from the original films, and feels like it’s saving all the best moments for the later movies. Nonetheless, it’s a film which we're already looking forward to seeing again, and soon. Just not in 48fps. On this evidence, 48fps is a horrible way to shoot and exhibit a film. We can but hope it turns out to be a passing fad.

In short, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a movie which can transport you to another place entirely, provided you don’t see it in HFR.

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