Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

INSPIRED CASTING: Martin Freeman - as Bilbo - is truly excellent.
INSPIRED CASTING: Martin Freeman - as Bilbo - is truly excellent.


Directed by Peter Jackson.

Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett.

It has been interesting, listening to the talk around the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and how different it is from the unalloyed celebration that surrounded The Lord of The Rings trilogy.

From ''Look what we made in New Zealand'', to a more partisan questioning of how we feel about providing locations and a workforce for major Hollywood productions. (For the record, my own response, with a few reservations, is ''Bring it on, and the more the better.'' It's a business I care about, and I want it to succeed.)

But now the circus has left town, the red carpet is back in the cupboard for another 12 months at least, and we have a film to watch.

Let's get the obvious out of the way immediately. The Hobbit is a very different experience to The Lord of The Rings. The book was written years earlier, and it was written for an audience of children.

Rings was written largely during World War II. Tolkien's readership were in their late teens and 20s, and the world was a far darker and more menacing place. And so it is with the films.

Although some of the locations are identical, everything is brighter and lighter here. Our first glimpse of Bilbo and Frodo's village - the same, but expanded on what we saw in Rings - is lit by bright sunlight. When we move inside Bilbo's house, there are candles on the tables, but there are no shadows, no dark corners, no unseen places.

Our first sight of Frodo's companion Strider was of a brutalised warrior, glowering through a wreath of smoke in a scruffy pub. Bilbo's companions for his unexpected journey turn up for dinner, break into song, and engage in a bout of pottery juggling. It's fun to watch, but it sure ain't foreboding.

Meanwhile, back here in the real world, a lot has changed for us in nine years as well. Computer and camera technology have come a long way. In the 3-D at 48 frames per second that The Hobbit is intended to be screened in, this film shines in a manner that we have never seen before. The image on screen isn't just ''more real'', it is hyper-real. Everything is bright, and pin sharp.

Most people I asked said they adjusted to the effect after a few minutes, and then settled in and started to enjoy the film. But in two and three quarter hours, I didn't feel that old familiar joy of being immersed in a picture. I could only watch The Hobbit move across the screen, I was never caught up in the story in the way that I am with the films I love.

Again, how could I not think of The Lord of the Rings; films that I have never had any trouble getting lost in. Of course Rings had thousands of digital effects shots as well - these films cannot be made without them - but I missed that old awe, watching The Hobbit. I missed the genuine excitement of watching and hearing Boromir and Strider battling the orcs in a pine forest. Knowing that those scenes were largely shot outside, under sunlight augmented by lamps, among real trees. Call me old-fashioned, but there is a difference.

So too with the story telling. The Hobbit is lighter, without Rings' layers and tendrils. The troupe of dwarves, the hobbit, and the wizard, are on a quest to reclaim the dwarves' mountain home from a filthy great dragon called Smaug.

Around them, seen and suspected only by Gandalf and his fellow wizards, dark forces are gathering and intruding into lands that have been at peace for generations. Every bend in the road brings a new encounter, with goblins, elves, and eventually with orcs and their weredogs.

The dwarves all do their jobs just fine, with Richard Armitage as their leader the only one with any real dramatic heavy lifting to get through. Around them, returning campaigners Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Sir Ian McKellen are all very good, with McKellen seemingly relishing his work even more than ever.

But Martin Freeman - as Bilbo - is truly excellent. This is an inspired bit of casting, and it will pay dividends as the films progress. The Hobbit needs a human heart to connect to its audience. McKellen, Armitage and Freeman provide it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a huge and impressive spectacle. As the first third of an epic, it does everything it needs to do. The characters are introduced, the stakes are established, and there is a promise of far darker material to come.

Whether or not I personally ''like'' a film has very little to do with any review I write. The questions to answer are ''Does the film achieve what it set out to do?'' and ''Will it work for the audience it was made for?'' The Hobbit answers these two questions with a resounding ''Yep''.

The Dominion Post