Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

17:24, Dec 04 2012
the hobbit landscape
ROLLICKING: Martin Freeman, centre, plays Bilbo Baggins in the first installment of The Hobbit - An unexpected Journey which hits cinemas next week.

It was always going to be a hard act to follow.

Eleven Oscars, a worldwide box office of just under US$3 billion and the transformation of New Zealand cinema from near cottage industry to global player. 

Then, as if the legacy of The Lord of the Rings trilogy wasn't enough, then came the troubled pre-production, blighted by MGM's financial crisis, original director Guillermo Del Toro's frustration and local squabbles that threatened to take Middle-earth elsewhere.

So it's somewhat of a relief to report, now that veil has been lifted on The Hobbit (Part 1), that Sir Peter "Action" Jackson has delivered a rollicking adventure (it has the feel of one of those old serials with sometimes literal cliffhangers) that will more than satisfy Rings fans, even if it won't win over any new ones.

The story follows a remarkably similar path to Fellowship, there are more subtitles, more weird and wonderful creatures, it's even more of a "sausage fest" and there are no human characters this time around.

What is slightly strange is that the spectre of not one but two trilogies appears to hang over the film.


In fleshing out Professor JRR Tolkien's much slimmer, more child-orientated tale (written decades before Rings) to make it fit in with what they have already committed to celluloid, Jackson and co find themselves facing the same join-the-dots prequels dilemma as George Lucas set himself than a decade ago.

There's the marrying old characters with new, de-ageing certain players and setting events in motion, which unfortunately leads to some particularly clunky, foreboding scenes involving Christopher Lee playing the Middle-earth equivalent of Star Wars' Chancellor Palpatine. 

Of course the potential for disaster here is also compounded by many cinemagoers familiarity with the text.  

But while this isn't The Hobbit parents might remember from their childhood, whether in book form, on radio or the ZX Spectrum computer, Jackson and his writing team of Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Del Toro haven't really strayed too far from Tolkien's overall vision.

He was apparently the Lucas of his day, tinkering with the text well after he'd written his other books, and this is simply reverse-engineering in light of Rings events from Moria to Mt Doom.  

Jackson does a particularly good job of giving the myriad characters personalities (and in most cases a song - although Barry Humphries' Goblin King is more Jabba the Hutt than David Bowie) and I love the fact he kept the story's big baddy Smaug just tantalisingly offscreen or in the shadows, waiting to take centre stage.

What may be more troubling for parents who have enthralled their children with The Hobbit's tale of song-loving dwarves, riddles and dragons, is the initially light tone (it's almost a comedy-musical for the first half hour) gives way to an increasingly violent, if not bloody, tale of revenge.

The dwarves' quest to reclaim their homeland has been given an extra edge  with the addition of the truly nightmare-inducing Azog (Manu Bennett), whose appearance threatens to turn the film into a cross between 300 (he bears more than a passing resemblance to Xerxes) and The Princess Bride (a dwarf with a particularly potent and legitimate grudge Thorrin as a kind of Inigo Montoya).

I guess, as the engaging and excellent Martin Freeman's hero Bilbo Baggins says, adventures are "nasty disturbing, uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner", but still, 166 minutes is a long-stretch for younger attention spans and bottoms.

However, for those into or even just intrigued by this fantasy world that time will fly by, particularly if you are lucky enough to see it in Jackson's latest piece of cinematic "chicanery".

The third coming of 3-D looked to be rapidly running out of steam, but married with his revolutionary high-frame-rate (double the traditional 24-frames per second), the effect is dazzling.

It will take a couple of minutes to adjust - like seeing HD TV for the first time people will appear to do things too fast - but after that you'll be won over by the crispness and clarity of the action, which makes things look less like a moving viewmaster and more like the immersive experience cinemagoers have always dreamed of.  

Not only does it give added life to Andy Serkis' Gollum (who despite a slim cameo must be worthy of an Oscar nod - if Judi Dench can win for eight-minutes in Shakespeare in Love ... ), but it also truly adds an extra dimension to the swirling, whirling camerawork Jackson loves to employ.

And yes, he does indulge in throwing a few things at the audience.

Fear not though, those unable or unwilling to make the dimensional leap, the 2-D Unexpected Journey is still one filled with "dark and powerful magic", a towering cast (everyone from the returning Sir Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett to newcomers James Nesbitt and Doctor Who's nuttiest and nattiest incarnation Sylvester McCoy) and plenty of hero shots of Aotearoa's spectacular scenery.

It might be more The Lord of the Rings: Episode I than Hobbit fans would like, but thankfully this is no Phantom Menace, and it certainly whets the appetite for what lies ahead in The Desolation of Smaug.

If it's a patch on Rings' middle film The Two Towers than we're all in for a treat. Roll on December 2013.

James Croot is The Press' film editor and chief film reviewer. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in New Zealand cinemas next Wednesday.

It will receive a censorship classification in Australia this week before being cross-rated for New Zealand. Hoyts Riccarton and Northlands  are the Christchurch cinemas who will have selected sessions in the 48-frames per second 3-D format.

The Press