And so it begins… An epic 18-month, 9 hour cinematic adventure as audiences return to JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth, with Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson once again leading us through this vast fantasy world. The Hobbit Part 1 of 3 is a journey definitely worth taking on the big screen but it’s also not without flaws – the chief being that the film feels its full 170 minute running time. Jackson frequently subjects viewers to unnecessary material that would honestly be better saved for an Extended Cut DVD.
Anyway, on to the chief question: What is the brand spanking new format of HFR (Higher Frame Rate) 3D like? After all, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first film to be released in 48 frames per second, as opposed to the standard 24 fps. Well, the effect is not dissimilar to the often hated True Motion setting on many HD TVs. And ultimately I think it will be a matter of individual taste how easily you accept/cope with it.
The most important thing to note is that yes, the visuals appear “smoother” than normal and, especially to begin with, sped up. As with conventional 3D, the format works best with quieter, more leisurely paced scenes. HFR allows you to appreciate the new ultra-enhanced clarity of settings and character expressions. For example, the elven outpost of Rivendell is more spectacular than ever before, and you won’t be able to look away from the disgusting, boil-speckled Goblin King and Gollum – who is once again motion-capture performed to full emotive force by Andy Serkis.
Was I distracted from the movie; unable to immerse myself in the action because of HFR 3D? Did the film lose its grand cinematic sense? Later on, no; to begin with, yes. Fast paced, darting visuals suffer most, with the opening attack feeling like something out of a Hallmark Channel miniseries circa 1996. It looks cheap. At the same time though, HFR combats the murkiness of 3D, really bringing out the richness of the colours.
Just as the HFR 3D visuals are a blend of pros and cons, so too is the content of the film as a whole. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes across like its namesake novel spliced with a Lord of the Rings prequel.
For the record, The Hobbit centres on young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who is tempted out of his “respectable” life in the Shire by dishevelled wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Bilbo joins 13 dwarves seeking to reclaim their treasure and mountain home from Smaug the Dragon. The band’s leader is throneless king Thorin Oakenshield (an imposing Richard Armitage), who masks his shame with haughtiness and distrust after suffering multiple betrayals.
An Unexpected Journey chronicles the first few (mis)adventures of the band as they travel across the Wilderness to the Lonely Mountain. So all the important early events from Tolkien’s book are there, and they’re exceptionally well-realised – mixing humour and thrills. However, Jackson and his co-writers have also scavenged around in Tolkein’s other Middle-earth books and appendices, interspersing The Hobbit’s narrative with events that originally received only a couple of sentences on the printed page. Sometimes the results are squee-inducing but sometimes they slam on the narrative brakes and you wish Jackson would just get on with things.
New content inclusions that are particularly memorable include the fall of the dwarven empire, and Radagast the Brown’s (Sylvester McCoy) desperate ministrations in the Mirkwood. Absolutely agonising though are 10 minutes of framing story devoted to elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) at work on his biography – which explicitly links The Hobbit to The Fellowship of the Ring – and a meeting of the powerful White Council. This latter meeting between Gandalf, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) sounds exciting in theory as it assembles the most magically powerful beings in Middle-earth. However, the scene is stiff in performance and dialogue, and ultimately largely pointless.
Repeatedly while watching, you may find your mind returning to the thought that The Hobbit would have been better as 2 – not 3 – films, and it should have focused exclusively on the novel’s content instead of trying to stuff in multiple fan-service moments. Scenes lifted straight from the pages of The Hobbit tend to be the most memorable, and, frankly, every narrative detour means there’s less time to introduce the 13 dwarves. Granted Tolkien was never one for complex characterisation, but one movie into this new trilogy, only a handful of the dwarves have been given any discernable personality.
All this said, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does improve as it progresses. From the moment the band encounters a trio of yobbo trolls, the action flows thick and fast, concluding with a double-punch of confrontations that are strikingly original and well-choreographed. These alone make the slow start worth enduring.
In the end you can’t deny that it’s satisfying to be back in the cinematic Middle-earth, watching rugged heroes once again stride across mountain backdrops and swing their special elven swords to Howard Shore’s powerful score. Tripped up by its faults though, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey can’t be labelled anything but good (or very good if you’re feeling generous). It is however very entertaining and, in HFR 3D, very, very pretty.