FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a buzzing 170 minutes of activity filled with dwarf songs, goblins and more falling platforms than a Super Mario marathon. There's such a mish-mash of muddled storytelling, you can't even call it entertainment. I emerged into the light, rubbing my eyes from the 48 frames per second, and found my head buzzing with questions. Was the dreadlocked forest wizard really necessary? Did Peter Jackson actually attempt to improve on J R.R. Tolkien's classic? Why did the dwarfs vs, dragon battle at the beginning look like a BBC teleplay filmed by Viewmaster?
The Hobbit director Peter Jackson, centre, is seen with actors Hugo Weaving, left, and Ian McKellen on set. (Todd Eyre/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Before we delve into the soup of a story, we need to dispense with the new viewing format, called High Frame Rate 3D. Lo, I have seen the future of film and it looks... like video.
Crisp. Bright. Harsh. Unforgiving video.
The Hobbit was shot on digital cameras that captured the action at 48 frames per second, the same rate it will be projected in theatres that have compatible projectors. (Which is quite a few. )
By doubling the visual information streaming into our cortex, Jackson has stripped cinema of its glimmering, filmic, (and forgiving) sheen. The effect is similar to what you may have experienced the first time you watched cable television in HD. Suddenly you find yourself fixating on the actor's makeup in the overly harsh lighting.
In the unblinking eye of High Frame Rate 3D, colours seem overblown and digital monsters are reduced to looking like herky-jerky puppets that escaped from the Henson Creature Shop.
Unfortunately, technology isn't the only problem with The Hobbit. Perhaps Jackson has stayed in Middle Earth a little too long. The film suffers from the Watchmen complex: a near religious devotion to source material. Afraid of compressing Tolkien's prelude to The Lord of the Rings, Jackson instead decided split the novel into three separate films.
While the expansion allows Jackson to take his time introducing Bilbo's Hobbit homeland, the Shire, he also spends a lot of time with characters who are more important in other J.R.R. Tolkien works. There's an elemental Forest Wizard named Radagast who battles spiders and rides a sled pulled by rabbits as well as stone giants who smash mountains like something from The Shadow of the Colossus.
What's missing from all the spectacle is any sense of the little person at the centre of the tale. Martin Freeman is his befuddled best as Bilbo, stammering and sighing at the band of dwarfs and a Wizard arriving on his doorstep who mutters about lost gold and dreaded dragons. But as to why Bilbo does what he does, who knows? They empty his larder, muddy his carpet and he steadfastly refuses to join the band of mini-marauders until, inexplicably, he changes his mind. Gandalf may see the mettle in Bilbo, but too little is said about Bilbo's Took heritage. In the novel, Tolkien took time to explain how the timid hole-dweller came from proud line of battle-tested Hobbits. Although the big screen adaptation is nearly three hours, those details get the briefest of mentions.
Fan favourite Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, pops up in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (Warner Bros./Associated Press)
While the first part of Bilbo's journey lacks purpose, the movie springs to life with the appearance of Gollum, the digital character once again given great voice and physicality by the performance of Andy Serkis.
Trapped at the depths of the dark Goblin's cave, Bilbo Baggins gathers his wits and has contests of riddles with the pale cave dweller. Gollum has never looked better — or worse. His eyes pallid pale saucers. The cruel sharp little teeth. In that dank cavern, we find ourselves in the presence of two great actors with a clear purpose and a scene with a richness superior to any HFR 3D trickery.
As the first instalment draws to an end, there's a sense the adventure has just begun. Finally Bilbo's real character is revealed, then just as the true scope of the task at hand comes into focus, the credits roll. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is as epic as it is exhausting. Here's hoping part two will rediscover some of the magic of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5
Correction: A number of commentors have pointed out the Stone Giants and Radagast the wizard are indeed from Tolkien's novels. Evidently I need to go study up on my Hobbit lore. Although the characters are not additions per se the way they're used does feel like an awkward inclusion.
Martin Freeman portrays the title character, Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit. (Warner Bros.)
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