14 December 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY- Review

So, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in good old-fashioned 24fps 2D. Not 3D, IMAX 3D, HFR 3D, WTF 3D, or OMGSTFU 3D. I'm not saying that this makes more qualified to talk about the film than others, and I'll certainly be checking out the HFR format, after I've written a review that discusses the relative qualities and demerits of Peter Jackson's first prequel to his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's earlier chronicle of Middle-Earth, the film begins with Ian Holm's Bilbo transcribing the story of his greatest adventure, on the day of his eleventy-first birthday party. From there, we flash back 60 years to a younger, more Martin Freeman-looking version of Bilbo, as he's press-ganged into that very quest by Gandalf the Grey and a motley crew of thirteen dwarves, led by ousted royal Thorin Oakenshield, in a bid to reclaim the dwarvish homeland of Erebor from a fearsome dragon. Elsewhere, a dark power has returned to Middle-Earth from an exile that has lasted centuries, and Bilbo's introduction to the wider world may only be the beginning of his problems.

In the run-up to the release of An Unexpected Journey, few avid fans of Jackson's tour-de-force trilogy have been as down on this movie as I have. I remember being dazzled by that series, between the ages of 11 and 13, and they had me onside up until the point that they announced they were splitting the book, which is shorter than any one of Tolkien's sequels, into three separate film adaptations. Then, I found out that the first of these films would be 165 minutes long, and as someone who has longed for this director to take a step back from overlong and indulgent mainstream movies, into the gruesome, more inventive and economical horror movies on which he began his career, the stretch alienated me.

The main problem in making The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings is not the usual prequel problem, in that you know which characters are safe from the get-go, but the comparison of the way in which the story is brought to the screen. In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson handles nine principal characters by giving each of them an arc that unfolds over the three films, and comes to satisfactory plateaus in each instalment that precedes the grand finale. In The Hobbit, thus far, it's difficult to differentiate the characters more than four out of thirteen dwarves. More than that, we're not seeing the story from the perspective of the Hobbit of the title.

This is a big shame, because Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo Baggins. Having admirably essayed other British literary heroes in the past, this seems like an ideal role for him- harried by forces who seem determined to get him out of his beloved Bag End, and, up to a certain point, epitomising the same anti-heroism as his Arthur Dent. However, his arc only seems to be happening at the point where he explains what he's learned, and on the strength of his performance here, we can only hope that Bilbo has more to do next time around. Richard Armitage is amongst the dwarf players who distracts from Mr. Baggins, while Sylvester McCoy and an everlasting council, comprising old hands Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, serve as a diversion through the most sedate passage of the film.

Having said all of this, I can't understate the immense thrill that comes with re-entering Jackson's Middle-Earth. Although the advances in technology give it a different, sometimes jarring aesthetic, the production design is as sublime as ever, with Andrew Lesnie's cinematography complementing that just as well, and Howard Shore's score is, at once, both familiar and brand new. The new theme music for this trilogy, which we first hear as a dwarf hymn called The Song of the Lonely Mountain, is a fitting accompaniment to all of the appreciably amped-up action setpieces.

The best of what we've seen before involves riddles in the dark, and Andy Serkis comfortably runs away with yet another Tolkien movie. This should probably be his last turn as Gollum, given his role in the whole story, but he's so damn good in the role, I won't object if he's shoe-horned into either of the remaining two parts. In terms of action, there's an incredible sequence that takes place on a mountain pass, which feels like a pure, five-minute remnant of Guillermo del Toro's contribution to the film. Credited as a producer, he was once enlisted as the director, until the film's legal problems during development, and it's scintillating to imagine the tighter, more dangerous film that he might have made. While The Hobbit is set in a smaller world than its successors, this still sometimes feels a little too comfortable and familiar.

When you hear Bilbo's final line in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it's intended to be both ironic and foreboding, but it inadvertently sums up this first film in Jackson's prequel trilogy. It's no Phantom Menace, but it does suffer from the buckets of exposition and set-up that it boldly encompasses, and the lack of a clear-cut villain against whom you can root for our heroes. For something that's basically nothing more than a first act, it shows that even when Jackson over-indulges, he knows how to engage an audience- I even thought this about his much-derided King Kong movie, but I submit that he does far more than is necessary, to get us amped up for The Desolation of Smaug next Christmas. It's obviously essential for Tolkien fans, but those who were courted by the previous three films might feel let down.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is now showing, in too many formats to list, in cinemas nationwide. 
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If you've seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, why not share your comments below? I may weigh in on the 48fps debate at a later date, but to those who are already condemning the format, you ought to have come down this hard when 3D was coming back.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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