When it’s on: Monday, 28 December (5.45 pm)
Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the cinema was a somewhat disorientating experience. As someone who loved the Lord of the Rings films, I was only going to buy the best tickets for this one and so we took it in at the IMAX, with 3D and the film’s much vaunted ‘High Frame Rate’ on exhibition. The latter element, projecting the film at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24, produced the strange effect of the camera and characters appearing to move around at high, unnatural speeds. The aim was to make it more immersive, to show a more realistic image, and in fairness once my eyes adjusted to it I was able to forget it was there, but it made no difference in terms of anything positive. It was just queer. Cinemas were already offering audiences the choice in terms of FPS, and when I went to see the series’ subsequent entries I ignored HFR entirely. I think many people turned away from it also, despite the studio’s pig-headed determination to make it available.
Years later, with all this long in the past and the film judgeable on its own merits, how does it hold up? Without wanting to go into too much detail about it, I was seduced entirely by the LOTR films. If I remember rightly I caught each one twice in cinemas and followed with numerous further viewings on DVD, throwing in several reads of the book in order to get my fix. I was someone to whom the Hobbit movies was aimed directly, fans of Middle Earth who would want more, no matter the quality. By all accounts, the project was in pre-development hell for some time. Kingpin behind the Rings films, Peter Jackson, always had some connection with it but was mired in legal battles and for much of the time appeared to be taking on an Executive Producer’s role, with Guillermo Del Toro attached as both the writer and director. But then Del Toro quit, citing endless delays, and Jackson was on board again with his familiar production team. This made sense as the Hobbit films would take on a more continuous look and feel with the Rings entries, however though everything was in place for ‘more of the same’ there was a major question over the level of investment Jackson was willing to make. It’s well known, partly via the exhaustive appendices that come with the extended LOTR DVDs, that Jackson was as involved as he could be, that he led by example in terms of immersing himself entirely into the production. The result was a set of films that have ‘labour of love’ written right through them. Yes, they were big hitters at the box office, but the frankly insane levels of detail (down to real swords being forged for the actors, in an effort to make their performance feel that bit more ‘real’) emphasise productions that came with genuine seals of quality. Like the films or not, there’s little arguing with the sheer talent in overdrive that was behind them.
Controversies running behind the scenes suggested a tug of war between Jackson and studio interests. The main one was the decision to transform a project designed to cover two movies into three, thus stretching the contents of a children’s novel that runs for 368 pages (a shorter length than any of the three Lord of the Rings books). The logic was that this would give the production capacity to create a true set of prequels, adding plot elements that bridged the gap between both stories. And that’s there in the films, although it can equally be argued that things have been shoehorned in, such as the entire storyline that involves Thorin’s long-running feud with Azog the Defiler. Would the film be any poorer if it excised this altogether?
Of course, the main thrust is to return us to Middle Earth, beginning with an extended opening scene that spirits Martin Freeman’s Bilbo from his comfortable Hobbit Hole in Bag End and on the road to adventure. Freeman is a massive highlight in the film. According to Jackson, he was the only actor to ever be considered to the extent that the production didn’t start until he was available to commit to it. Freeman’s usual acting tropes – nervous, tending to peevishness, underlying resolve – all come to the fore here as he fully inhabits the little halfling whose creature comforts are invaded by the boorish dwarves. A lot of thought has gone into the majority of these characters also, from James Nesbitt as comic relief, Graham McTavish’s gruff warrior, to Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as the laddish younger dwarves and Ken Stott’s worldly wise Balin. They’re led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), instantly noble and highly capable, though also with a sense an air of impatience and prejudice, especially against the elves, who failed to come to his aid when his mountain home was taken over by Smaug. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, bringing all the characteristics we loved him for in the Rings films, indeed playing like a repeat performance, mixing action moments with pep talks to Bilbo along the way that are only reminiscent to words he’s had previously/later with Frodo.
It takes quite some time to move the action away from the Shire, and that’s fine to an extent because it introduces us to the major players, establishing the dwarves as capable of cheeky fun and enjoying a song. It also lacks any of the urgency of the Rings plotline, which had to condense weighty tomes into movies that were already longer than three hours and necessitating extended editions on home formats. Here, there’s a creeping sense of bloat, of stretching Tolkein’s slim text as far as it can go, and this stays throughout the films, as little episodes are expanded into major sequences as though everyone is trying to fill in as much time as possible.
And then there’s the issue of CGI. One of the real highlights of the Rings films was the perfect mixture of digital effects and location shooting, opting to film in parts of New Zealand that had been scouted exhaustively for their suitability. Here, there’s a larger degree of green screen, never more so than during the mountain scenes. The fight and flight the dwarves undergo whilst in the halls of the Goblin King are intended to be breathtaking, but as the stunts and action grows into impossible feats done at breakneck speed, it starts taking on the shape of a platform videogame. It’s a lot of fun, but it lacks any of the heft you got in, say, the battle against the Uruk-Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, which focused on the effort and toll of all the fighting. Whilst you can argue that it’s supposed to be a more family friendly adventure, there’s no real need to ramp up the action in the way it does, transforming dilemmas that fall within the credibility of the drama into comic book set pieces.
It again raises the question over who was pulling the strings. Jackson’s been guilty enough of overplaying his hand (King Kong, The Lovely Bones) beforehand and so it’s quite possible that he’s culpable for slapping CGI onto the screen rather than following the ‘less is more’ rule that made Rings such hits, but there’s a curious lack of care about the film that hints there was more at play. Often, too obviously often, those previous films are referenced, whether through Howard Shore’s musical cues or a gratuitous reappearance from Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel for no better excuse than because they could (she wasn’t the last of the Rings characters who wasn’t actually in the Hobbit novel to turn up in the films). Whether it’s because of a misplaced desire to please the fans or a basic lack of imagination isn’t entirely clear, but these moments look and feel like a tribute track, like there wasn’t sufficient trust in the story to play as its own entity. Either way, the bits taken directly from the book are about the best on screen. Gollum’s scene, a very famous chapter in the novel, is brilliantly done. He’s a great character and watching him here reminds us of that, but also his interplay with Bilbo – most of which is through simple dialogue and a sense of threat – works really well.
I wanted to like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey more than I did. Around the time of its release I was amongst its defenders, because like many others I’m happy enough to watch further Middle Earth adventures. I even bought the extended cut on DVD and saw that version again for this write-up, though I’d have to point out that whereas the added material in the Rings films actually enhanced the material and inserted missing story elements, here it does nothing more than flesh out the characters, and that unnecessarily. It’s nothing like a bad film, but the one thing I can go on more than any other is the fact I watched those LOTR flicks many times and I’ve barely bothered with this one. The quality just isn’t the same. Whilst I’m aware that sequels are nothing new within the movie industry, the craze for reboots, updates and (bizarrely) prequels is becoming more and more prevalent. Some of this year’s biggest box office hits were titles that either returned us to well trodden places (Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), gave us more of the same (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7) or rehashed familiar tales (Pan, Mad Max: Fury Road). I’m not trying to say all these films are terrible; that just isn’t true. But the lack of imagination is staggering, the attempts by certain titles, like Tomorrowland, to do something original have no hope due to the recycling and endless spin of marketing. I find myself believing that this film is as guilty of that as anything, a rather naked attempt to get our bums squarely back into cinema seats because, oh look, it’s another Middle Earth flick. And it isn’t the same. The heart that went into Lord of the Rings is absent and the result, several years down the line, is a product about which I care little.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: ***