Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy opens with an unsatisfying Unexpected Journey

Nine years on from Peter Jackson’s last, Academy Award winning visit to Middle Earth, the ambitious director has returned to JRR Tolkien’s world to bring The Hobbit, or There and Back Again to life on the big screen.  Stretching the material over three-lengthy films is just one of the controversial moves Jackson has made, with his decision to film the trilogy in the high frame rate (HFR) of 48 frames per second (as opposed to the traditional 24fps) likely to create as much discussion as the actual content of his films.  Opening a new series that will conclude in December 2014, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey welcomes audiences back to quite familiar territory.  However, anyone expecting to quickly settle back into the comforts of the Lord of the Rings films is in for an uncomfortable surprise.

After a few old friends ease viewers into this pre-Fellowship of the Ring tale, the pace of An Unexpected Journey idles whilst the new, sizable cast is introduced.  At the forefront is Martin Freeman, having been passed Bilbo’s torch from Ian Holm.  Sixty years prior to the start of The Fellowship of the Ring, a young Bilbo is unwittingly recruited for an adventure by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, looking noticeably and understandably older than when last seen donning the wizard’s cap).  Gandalf leads a band of Dwarves out to reclaim their homeland, now ruled by Smaug, a treasure loving dragon of mammoth proportions, and believes the Halfling to be the perfect complement to the ragtag group of warriors.  Jackson lingers considerably in Bilbo’s home, setting the pieces in play and engaging in some light comedy before allowing for a song break.  When Gandalf declares “all good stories deserve embellishment”, it’s as if Jackson himself is justifying this unexpected stalling.  Though this time is used to provide a feel for several of the multitude of characters, with such a long road ahead for all parties involved, it feels unnecessary to drag The Hobbit’s hairy feet so blatantly.

At this point, it’s worth commenting on the HFR, especially as the dreadfully slow opening allows for plenty of time to consider Jackson’s presentation choices.  There’s no denying how unusual it is to watch a film presented at 48fps.  The fact that most viewers will come into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with a clear idea of what to expect visually based on LOTR, let alone every other film ever seen, doesn’t help matters.  The method employed by Jackson here flies in the face of the long-engrained expectation of how a film should look.  As such, The Hobbit typically doesn’t look cinematic at all.  It does look like the world’s most expensive television production, but credit where it’s due: as much as one might expect to be able to see the seams, none are to be found on screen.  That’s not to say, The Hobbit doesn’t look a bit goofy and stagey as a direct result of HFR, because it certainly does.  The amount of adjustment time needed to become comfortable with viewing the film at 48fps is considerable.  That so little of interest happens during the first hour of the film makes it all the more difficult to forget about how it’s being screened.  Once the action picks up and dimmer locales come into play, the shooting style becomes easier to digest.  There are times where The Hobbit looks great and the added 3D creates an enjoyably layered experience without being flaunted.  Yet for a technique that is meant to lend a more natural viewing experience, this initial effort has a handful of bugs that need to be worked out, as scenes and motions appear to run too fast at times and feel artificial in the way CGI did in its early days.  There’s certainly potential to HFR, but whether or not it’s either necessary or preferable is another matter altogether.

It’s likely that much talk over An Unexpected Journey will centre more on how it presents itself rather than what it presents.  All hype and technicality aside, this is a pretty dry appetizer for the films to come.  Some mild threats are presented to the protagonists as they begin their journey, but nothing that can match the menace of Sauron’s terrifying glare or the ever-present danger of the Nazgûl.  Freeman does a great job as the reluctant adventurer, but few of the other new faces make an impact beyond Richard Armitage’s bitter Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield.  Several important LOTR characters make cameo appearances along the way, yet they tend to add to the feeling that An Unexpected Journey is the runt of the litter, just scrapping for attention.

The Hobbit does present some striking and enjoyable visuals, with the Storm Giants being especially memorable.  It’s one of the few times when An Unexpected Journey actually feels fun, rather than plodding.  There are other unique character designs to be found, even though much of it has been filtered through Jackson’s pre-established vision of how orcs, goblins and wargs should look.  Some of it is downright bizarre, such as the Goblin King, whose face appears to have a distinct testicular similarity.  It’s certainly notable, but does nothing to make the character imposing in any way.  One great scene involves several familiar feathered friends, whose prior involvement drove some viewers mad.  Those who were put off by that relatively explainable appearance will be enraged by the obvious questions their inclusion here begs.

An epic opening act will rarely prove to be a good idea.  The Fellowship of the Ring managed to get away with it thanks to strong characters, a large, looming evil and the sheer novelty of seeing Tolkien’s world created onscreen for the first time. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s two-and-a-half hours of set-up is expectedly underwhelming.  Beyond being so painstakingly paced, there’s little that is wrong with the film, beyond the fact that it fails to be engaging.  Jackson shooting in 48fps works best when the action moves fast enough to distract from how odd it looks.  Unfortunately, those moments come in relatively short or repetitive bursts.  There’s little doubt that hard-core Tolkien fans will be pleased with the efforts that have gone into bringing The Hobbit to life.  It’s just too bad that there’s nothing particularly compelling about it otherwise.  Still, there’s reason enough to believe that The Hobbit’s next journey will be more satisfying now that the formalities are out of the way.  7/10

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in cinemas 13 December

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