Film review: The Hobbit

SARAH WATT
Last updated 05:00 09/12/2012

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (TBC) 169 mins 

There's a scene in the MGM classic Singin' in the Rain where a group of Hollywood industry types are given a preview of a revolution in cinema history - the introduction of sound into moving pictures, which signalled the advent of the talkies. "It's vulgar!" they splutter, horrified at what they have witnessed. "It won't amount to a thing."

Sir Peter Jackson's newest tribute to the fantasy world of JRR Tolkien makes a leap of similar proportions in the advance of cinema technology, and it will be interesting to see whether contemporary audiences initially react the same way.

Mere 3D it ain't. Shooting at twice the rate of normal film (the format we've been used to up until now) has enabled the visionary film-maker to capture twice as much detail and therefore produce an incredibly high-definition movie that renders the actors and action as if right in front of our very eyes.

To some extent, the 48 FPS (frames per second) works a treat, though some viewers may initially find this technical assault on their eyes as distracting as it is wondrous. The risk is that seeing something so intensely real makes it harder to suspend disbelief - crucial, you'd think, for a fantasy story about goblins, dwarfs and wizards.

Obviously, Jackson's desire is to introduce us to what will surely become the way of the future.

However, not everyone will see The Hobbit in this hyper-realistic rendering, so traditional cinema-goers can be assured that the plot, characters and exciting pace of the movie translate in any format.

The Hobbit story itself needs little introduction. The traditional quest story, interspersed with vibrant set-pieces of battles and madcap escapes, is fundamental to the genre and while An Unexpected Journey is more light-hearted than its predecessors (sadly lacking the menace of the Lord of the Rings' Ringwraiths), bear in mind it only covers the first third of a story that has much darker territory still to traverse.

What matters is who Jackson has cast to bring this beloved of tales to life and how well they have acquitted this most weighty of responsibilities.

Happily, Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins is pitch-perfect in his characterisation of the conservative, allergic little homebody who is coerced into adventuring with a motley band of dwarfs, on a quest to save their home of Erebor from the fire-breathing dragon, Smaug.

Freeman's natural English charm and humility, expert comic timing (initially seen in the groundbreaking The Office) and expressive face is already earning him plaudits.

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The Hobbit's cast is mostly new, including Barry Humphries, unrecognisable as the Goblin King, and a company of mostly merry dwarfs, headed by the dashing Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The rest of the posse include a host of well-known but prosthetically altered faces, all clearly having a whale of a time.

And of course, there is the welcome return of Rings staples Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett's Galadriel (one character for whom the higher definition is extraordinarily favourable) and the inimitable Andy Serkis as Gollum. Serkis is hands-down the greatest thing about The Hobbit, his personification of the multiple-personalitied creature even more of a revelation than his previous mastering of the role. The intensity conveyed by seeing him in 48 FPS, leaping about his cave and challenging Bilbo to a game of riddles, makes for the most brilliantly acted, jaw-droppingly animated and compellingly dramatic scene in the film.

The double-edged sword of the new format is that some shots are so hyper-realistic they look like a Tourism NZ advert with a train of dwarfs superimposed onto stunning scenery. It's also interesting how a daytime, sunlit orc battle fails to be as frightening or serious as they were in the darker LOTR.

But once your eye is tuned into this brave new cinematic world, it dawns on you how apposite it is that An Unexpected Journey is leading the way. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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