Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth with part one of his trilogy adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. A young Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, legendary warrior Thorin Oakensheild, and a posse of 13 dwarves journey to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which was long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. Their quest will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters and Sorcerers. Almost ten years has passed since we last witnessed a middle earth premiere on the big screen with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The film adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’ has had a difficult road involving various entanglements and for a time it did not seem that Peter Jackson would direct the new films. However as events have unfolded Jackson is indeed helming the new trilogy about to begin on Australian screens.
A trilogy adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’ initially seemed a little self-indulgent, comprising of a smaller scale story when compared with the war of the ring, Tolkien’s prequel simply doesn’t contain the density of story for a three film adaptation. However what is going to unfold (and what is merely glanced at in this first instalment), is additional story material that appeared in other works will be integrated into this trilogy, not only further fleshing out the back ground and context of this tale but also strengthening its connection to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The preview screening I attended was the high frame rate 3D version of the film, however I will leave comments on this aspect until the end of my review.
‘An Unexpected Journey’ begins this trilogy on a familiar note, with a narrated prologue to the film followed by the central story of a group of characters on a quest across middle-earth in an effort to regain their ancestral homeland. While the premise isn’t as grand as that of ‘Fellowship’, Jackson manages to inject some of the epic adventurous spirit that is part of the rings films.
Narratively ‘An Unexpected Journey’ doesn’t tend to follow the more traditional three act structure largely due to its context within this new trilogy. It does however become somewhat repetitious as the company move slowly towards their goal of reaching Erebor. We witness them travel for a time, encounter a problem, work through it, travel a bit further, and encounter another problem and so forth.
While it’s a fairly simple structure, this doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the film as each encounter is interesting in its own right, with visually impressive set pieces, and exciting action sequences that entertain and delight.
What is interesting about Peter Jackson’s approach with this film is that there has been a clear decision to take a lighter tone at least in this first instalment and this matches the book quite effectively. However where the additional content has been drawn in to link in with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ the tone is far more serious and it creates some erratic shifts between certain parts of the film.
Structure and tone aside ‘An Unexpected Journey’ (similar to Lord of the Rings) takes a number of creative detours from the source material, the purpose of which appears to heighten the dramatic nature of the events and give more purpose to its main characters. The problem with this is that the existing source material wasn’t lacking in drama and purpose to begin with. Where creative license has been taken in this translation the content isn’t critical enough that it couldn’t be trimmed to keep the overall film a bit tighter without losing much (if any) of the dramatic material. This doesn’t apply to the new material that has been brought in from other sources however, that content is well deserving of inclusion here.
With so many characters included in the story it would simply not be possible to give each enough screen time to develop a sense of depth and individuality beyond a look and quick demeanour. Of all the dwarves just a few are given tangible personalities particularly Thorin Oakenshield as you would expect. Unfortunately this leaves a number of the dwarves is little more than background dressing that would probably be able to be removed without any real impact on the film whatsoever.
The performances to be found here are all round a joy to watch, Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo is perfect as he gives a charming performance with a conflicting sense of humour, fear and bravery. Ian McKellen taps into his previous performance and Gandalf the Grey with ease, and Richard Armitage is a standout as the leader of the company, in a similar position to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn of the rings films but drawing a stark contract between the characters in his distrust of the elves, and the less noble nature of the quest.
On the visual effects side of things ‘An Unexpected Journey’ makes much more use of computer generated characters than the previous films, and it brings with it an unfortunate sense of weightlessness to some of the characters and even some of the action, however at the same time it looks brilliant onscreen and gives the film much of its visual flavour.
Howard Shore returns to score the film and delivers a blend of new and familiar tunes that match the film thematically where required. The use of existing themes from the Lord of the Rings films is so effective as An Unexpected Tale references specific characters, locations, or items that the audience is likely already familiar with.
Overall Peter Jackson and all involved have delivered an extremely enjoyable film, one that is beautifully shot, visually interesting and well acted. Narratively it is simple, and tonally it can be somewhat erratic but all indications are that this trilogy of Hobbit films will deliver another breath taking series set in middle earth comprised of a combination of content from the book of the same name, other works by Tolkien, and some creative license from the writers involved.
A decision was taken for the new trilogy to be filmed in what is referred to as High Frame Rate (HFR) which essentially means the film was shot at 48 frames per second as opposed to the traditional 24 frames per second. On reflection I found HFR to be a mixed viewing experience at best but it is certainly worth considering. When this technology is employed effectively the film looks absolutely fantastic and the wide landscape shots here are breathtaking. Where a shot was comprised of large amounts of visual effects and/or digital characters it looked overly digital. Another area where HFR didn’t impress was for more intimate close-ups and character scale interactions, which was (initially at least) somewhat disorientating.
Overall however the use of HFR improved throughout the film, and the highs are worth experiencing even if just to form your own opinion on the technology. For me I was left feeling that HFR technology hasn’t quite been mastered yet, but has a very legitimate future in feature film.
I’m giving ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ eight out of ten stars, it will be released in screens around Australia on Wednesday December 26th 2012.