Peter Jackson’s long-awaited prequel is shrouded by hype, not all of which is positive. Protective fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved work are biting their nails in the uneasy anticipation that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may crush hopes and turn out to be the Star Wars: Episode I – Phantom Menace of the franchise. That may well be the bitter truth for some fans, but all I can tell you is what I took from the film which is that I had a blast with it.
Due to the fact that I’m unfamiliar with the story, which may be a beneficial position, I entered with relatively neutral expectations. Admittedly it took me a bit of time before I felt invested in the film, but thankfully this is one of the main reasons why its extensive running time plays to its advantage. For starters, it’s quite a challenge to become accustomed to seeing Tim from The Office in a major motion picture and you half expect him to give knowing looks to camera every now and again. But as time goes on it becomes glaringly obvious as to why Jackson picked Martin Freeman to be his Bilbo. He may not be an especially versatile performer, but he’s a man blessed with such kind, unassuming features that display a great deal of vulnerability making him a character we want to root for throughout his quest.
The second and most major aspect that takes some getting used to is the visual style. Jackson chooses to shoot the film in velvety smooth 48 frames per second (double that of regular film) which hasn’t exactly worked wonders in the past (see Public Enemies). As things kick off it’s hard not to think that maybe the cynics were right. The film has a televisual look to it in its opening minutes which, combined with the fantastical imagery and slightly hammy acting, verges on looking like a pantomime. But once things begin to accelerate and the story enters more ambitious territory I started to wonder why blockbusters haven’t been done like this before. To put it frankly, the film looks absolutely stunning and the level of detail that Jackson captures with the frame rate is unparalleled. The sprawling vistas are breath-taking, characters are more expressive than ever, especially Gollum (Andy Serkis) who gets a wonderfully entertaining scene, and most impressively of all Jackson manages to justify the use of 3D. What I usually consider to be an unnecessary gimmick is an enhancing device in this instance, creating an utterly immersive aesthetic that manages to make Middle Earth feel authentic and tangible.
Storytelling is perhaps the film’s biggest downfall and it certainly caters more for the eyes than it does for the brain. All you need do is compare the length of this first of three instalments (169 minutes) with the thickness of Tolkien’s relatively short novel. Jackson cuts no corners meaning there’s a lot of material to get through and the film takes its sweet time in doing so. For some this would perhaps render it a laborious affair, but for me it gave it the feeling of an adventure that made the grandiose set-pieces all the more rewarding.
It’s inevitable that this voyage to Middle Earth will divide fans, and it already has. Those expecting epic fantasy cinema in the some dark vein as The Lord of the Rings trilogy may be deterred by the whimsical tone. Likewise, those expecting a snappy adaptation of the novel that cuts right to the chase will likely turn their nose up at how bloated it feels. But those seeking vibrant and immersive family entertainment on a spectacular scale will be satisfied and left hungry for part two.
With The Hobbit, Jackson has elevated fantasy cinema to a new level and created a milestone, maybe not as a piece of storytelling, but certainly as a technical achievement.