Jacksonís Hobbit Trilogy Begins Its Middle Earth Journey
The sense of dťjŗ vu hovering over director and co-screenwriter Peter Jacksonís return to J.R.R. Tolkienís Middle Earth is undeniable. After the weight, majesty and power of his massive and highly successful take on the authorís The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the events talked about ad in his opening salvo at tackling prequel The Hobbit canít help but feel trite and unimportant. The fate of the world isnít at stake this time around, the lives of Men, Dwarves, Elves and, of course, Hobbits, not exactly in the balance as pintsized Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) heads out his door leaving the Shire for his initial adventure.
Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey © Warner Bros
At the same time, this film, saddled with the subtitle An Unexpected Journey and the first of a new trilogy, is hardly a waste of time. Jackson knows this world and its people with robust and energetic intimacy, and as familiar as much of this tale can feel the director is hardly spinning his wheels going through the motions. His passion is evident in every frame, every shot, and one can tell instantly he and his creative team have thought through every second of the story attempting to achieve a level of exactitude thatís undeniable.
But to what end? Tolkienís original tale was purposefully thin, the author crafting something more akin to a childrenís tale with The Hobbit than he was anything else. The story didnít require a lot of heavy lifting and, in most editions, sans the appendices, ran just over 300 or so pages, hardly the stuff that would fuel a trio of three-hour $200-million-plus Hollywood epics. There is filler here and at times it can feel like Jackson is taking forever to get to the heart of the matter, and as handsome as the production is and as well-acted and performed as all of it can be thereís no denying the fact this first act of the adventure is much too long.
For those who do not know, the story revolves around Bilbo being convinced by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) to join in with a group of 13 dwarves, led by the haunted yet commanding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and embark on a quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the groupís home from the dragon Smaug. Why he is given this task he is not sure, and for that matter neither is the wizard who has given it to him, the relatively young Hobbit (heís a spritely 51) managing to learn much about himself as well as the nature of the larger world itself as he and the group face down all manner of unspeakable and dangerous calamities.
The connection to The Lord of the Rings is obvious, of course, as it is here that Bilbo will come by the One Ring, the devilish device that will signal the return of an ancient evil and send his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) out on his very own adventure 60 years later. But Jackson, trying to give An Unexpected Journey additional weight, makes sure and hint at the coming calamitous turn of events at every turn, playing up the fact that Thorin and his group have inadvertently started something with their journey that will bring all of Middle Earth into a fight for its very survival not too far into the immediate future.
Some of this is nice, a scene in Rivendale between Gandalf, Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) achieving a sort of ethereal elegance I found enchanting. Other times, though, these sequences, most notably ones involving another wizard, the unhinged and mentally unbalanced Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), are so heavy-handed and over the top they drove me nuts, and while some of what he talks about is important (at least as far as the next film is concerned) thereís no denying his presence is borderline superfluous.
Granted, the one exceedingly important and emotionally chilling connection between the two Middle Earth stories is handled with the precision, care and majesty required, the initial meeting between Bilbo and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) as startlingly effective as anything I could have imagined. The two, engaged in a battle of riddles, go back and forth and round and round, each trying to mentally outdo the other and take charge of a situation neither knows the full consequences of. It is a thrilling sequence, beautifully acted by both Freeman and Serkis and marvelously staged by Jackson, the heart of the story laid bare and our heroís transformation from timid, unsure wanderer to confident, larger-than-life adventurer honest and pure.
But did I need to see a thunderstorm-filled battle between the mystical Rock Giants as Thorin and his band attempted to make his way across the mountains? Were so many scenes of chitchat between talkative goblins, trolls and orcs even slightly necessary? Was the addition of Azog (Manu Bennett), a brutish, one-armed orc villain with an obsession for Thorinís head on a pike, one that helped propel the story on in any sort of discernible way? Not really, and as nice as many of these scenes are on their own inside the movie itself they feel self-indulgent slowing proceedings down far more than they do anything else. Quite simply, I couldnít help but feel that by the time the end came we should have been far more along this journey than we actually were, and the thought that there were still six additional hours of motion picture to go wasnít exactly comforting.
There is an additional facet to all of this I have not as yet mentioned, and itís one that has little to do with the storytelling yet ends up being incredibly important all the same. I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Jacksonís preferred template, High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D, where the image is showcased at 48 frames-per-second (fps) instead of the usual 24fps and, I cannot help but say, visually this is as jarring and uncomforting experience as any Iíve had in the theatre.
It goes without saying clarity is increased many times over, while the fluidity of the 3D is oftentimes extraordinary. On top of that, in close up the digital effects have never looked so tactile, all of the sequences with Gollum so startlingly realistic one could be forgiven if they thought the character was there on the set the day of shooting (not Serkis, mind you, but the actual character himself) and not created later on a computer screen. There is mind-blowing detail to be found in HFR 3D, of that I cannot deny.
At the same time, there is a downside to this clarity that came close to driving me right round the proverbial bend. The fakery of it all, the digitally crafted majesty of so much of this Middle Earth world, all of it has never been so clearly visible. The lines between the practical and the digital are crystal clear, many of the scenes of Thorin and the dwarves running through caverns escaping from orcs looking like nothing more than herky-jerky cut-scenes from some high profile video game than they do anything else. Itís distracting and distancing, taking me out of the movie far more often than it immersed me inside of it, and as such my reservations in regards to HFR 3D and 48fps are close to stratospheric.
Richard Armitage in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey © Warner Bros
Not that most people will be seeing the film this way, only a handful of theatres across the country capable of showing it in the format. But as this was the way Jackson intended The Hobbit to be seen and the way the studio chose to have us view it I would be remiss if I didnít talk about it, and personally Iím incredibly curious to discover how audiences who do choose to see it in this format respond to the directorís technological experiment.
As for the movie itself, part of me feels like Iím being too harsh in regards to some of this opening chapterís shortcomings. This return trip to Middle Earth is not without its merits, Freeman in particular making for a rousing everyman sort of hero I couldnít help but want to cheer. While the magic isnít as pure and as strong as it was for The Lord of the Rings trilogy itís hardly waning, An Unexpected Journey an overall enjoyable experience and I for one am still interested to see what Jackson has in store for us next.
- Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: ÍÍ1/2 (out of 4)