Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
December 19, 2012
(Republished April 30, 2013)
Peter Jackson didn’t particularly want to direct The Hobbit, and I didn’t particularly want to be bored to tears, but there we both were, fulfilling what could only be described as some sort of cinematic murder-suicide pact. Guillermo del Toro was originally set to helm the then-two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings prequel, until frequent delays led to him attempting hobbitus interruptus, and pulling out before, ahem, shooting could begin. Jackson then stepped in, because what, he was going to hand over his precious to Chris Columbus? It’s now morphed into a trilogy; if Jackson has to devote more years of his life to these hairy little creatures, he’s going to ensure we each give up an extra three hours (and $17) for his troubles.
His antipathy for returning to Middle Earth can be felt in the gimmicks he deploys this time around; efforts to stave off boredom during production. An Unexpected Journey marks his first 3D effort, though the additional dimension is an inevitable inclusion for any blockbuster these days (surely the enhanced re-release of the LOTR trilogy isn’t far behind). More historic is his decision to film it in 48 frames per second; twice the traditional frame rate. This added clarity ensures the human actors never seem to exist in the same realm as the now-silly, Mighty Boosh-like special effects, and that those human actors look as if they’re moving at some bizarre, unnatural pace. You think you’ll get used to it, yet you never do. Perhaps the most unexpected journey of all was the one into the depths of the uncanny valley.
Martin Freeman (The Office, Sherlock) takes over the role of young Bilbo Baggins, first fashioned by Ian Holm (who pops up early on, along with Elijah Wood’s Frodo). Bilbo the elder reflects on an adventure from his youth, instigated by roaming wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, classing up the joint, as always). Gandalf, seemingly randomly, calls upon the short-statured and shoeless Bilbo to assist 13 dwarves in reclaiming their home from money hungry dragon Smaug. The lot of them embark on their mission, led by the all-bluster-no-muster Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), though not until after an inane, endless sequence in which the rowdy dwarves eat all of Bilbo’s food, clean his dishes, and, er, sing. (The flick's goofy sense of humour implies this one might be for the littlies only; how likely are they to sit still as it stretches past the two-hour mark?) They run into some orcs, rock monsters, elves, a mushroom-induced wizard, and, in the lone exhilarating and affecting moment, Gollum (Stanislavski in motion-capture spandex, Andy Serkis). Listing the highlights makes it all seem so ambitious and interesting. You’re forgetting Jackson’s – as well as co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens’ – predilection for scenes in which people just walk. It has not diminished over the past decade.
The hyper-real look of the movie is certainly an issue – if you never believe the actors are far from a soundstage, it’s hard to get invested in their characters’ “journey” or feel concerned for their safety – however it’s not the only thing keeping it from reaching the heights of the three pictures that preceded it. Tedium would be the other thing. There’s not nearly enough meat here to justify a hasty anecdote, let alone a 166-minute epic. An Unexpected Journey does have the benefit of featuring the affable Freeman as Bilbo, though the novelty of this fine thesp finally getting to anchor a massive blockbuster franchise wears off when you realise that even once the final credits roll, there’s still another five hours – at least – to endure. A sobering thought, indeed. The next instalment is called The Desolation of Smaug. I know how he feels.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Pay Per Play from May 1, 2013.