A faltering first hour blossoms into a glorious adventure saga as Peter Jackson takes up residence on Middle-earth once more.
And we’re back! After 10 years of production hiccups, departing directors, script wrangles and political intrigue that reached all the way to the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, did anyone truly imagine that The Hobbit would ever end up being anything other than a gigantic trilogy of films directed by Peter Jackson?
Despite the strangely muted marketing campaign that has accompanied its arrival, unless you’ve been living under a rock the size of Mount Doom, you’ll know that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey sees the Lord Of The Rings director returning to Middle-earth for the first of three prequels. They detail the initial finding of the ring of power, fill in a good deal of the Baggins family history and offer twelve dwarfish provincial character actors a chance to gurn, pratfall and belch their way into the hearts of millions.
There will, no doubt, be those choosing to watch film with the lingering – and perhaps legitimate – concern that Jackson has succumbed to either hubris, greed or both in stretching out JRR Tolkien’s slim, jaunty, rather silly little children’s novel into a sprawling, war-torn trilogy; ‘butter scraped over too much bread,’ to quote one of Tolkien’s most famous lines.
Others will be keen to look past Jackson’s decision to fill out the film with clumps of story culled from the endless appendices of Lord of the Rings and happily head out with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company on a new adventures in order to bask in the excitingly-rendered, as-yet-unseen regions of Middle-earth. Both camps get the chance to claim bragging rights during an opening act that is by turns dazzling, ungainly, disorderly and – whisper it – a little boring.
The prologue, in which the old Dwarf kingdom of Erebor is seen to rise and then fall, is as grand, dark and operatic as anything Jackson has served up to date. The design is sweeping in its detail, the new cast – especially Richard Armitage as the proud, vengeful Thorin – is immediately likable, and the action, when it arrives, is amply thunderous. Normal service, it would seem, has been resumed.
But there are two sides to that particular coin, and soon we are whisked back to the cosily familiar confines of Bag End where a young hobbit puffs contentedly on a clay pipe. Wizards arrive, parties are planned, maps are pondered, spry pastoral music floods the soundtrack and the audience has little option other than to slump back into tiresomely recognisable rhythms.
When Thorin and his dwarf company arrive to seek the uncomprehending Bilbo’s assistance in their plan to reclaim Erebor, the endless songs, supposed horseplay and flat one-liners drag on far too long, and Jackson, the bearded high-priest of propulsive filmmaking, seems unable to get his characters out of the door.
The film as a whole suffers from this schism: when there are new ideas or quests or characters to be introduced, the film is sure-footed, bold, energetic and luminous. But, apart from one or two precious exceptions, every time Jackson is forced to rake over old ground – the Shire, Rivendell – or decides to shoehorn in familiar faces – Frodo, Saruman – he seems notably uninspired.
Luckily, as the film proceeds, foreign fields and unfamiliar characters begin to supplant the old stamping grounds and faithful friends and foes. By the closing hour, Jackson appears to have worked out his kinks and starts enjoying himself immensely, finally able to allow his imagination and directorial flair a free hand with a series of tense chases, running battles and desperate escapes.
They will not only leave you drained, but simultaneously stoke your hopes that the adventure might continue long past the film's already generous runtime. All of which make prospects for the forthcoming instalments very favourable indeed.
Casting, as ever, is absolutely spot on. Martin Freeman’s infinite fund of indignant tics is a little over-indulged, but he otherwise makes for the perfect Bilbo. It might take a little while for British viewers to take 'Tim from The Office' entirely seriously during all those ‘find your courage’ moments, but by the film's close, only the hardest hearts will fail to be won over.
Standout dwarf performances come from James Nesbitt’s affable Bofur and Ken Stott’s reassuring, avuncular Balin, but neither can hold a candle to the swaggering, smoldering Richard Armitage as company leader Thorin Oakenshield. Eyes gleaming with red vengeance and self-import, Armitage makes Thorin a study in exiled royalty, a legend-in-the-making who’s every move and utterance belongs to the storied ages.
Jackson’s decision to produce and exhibit his film in HFR 3D and at a new-fangled 48 frames-per-second (twice as good as the customary 24, apparently) results in a mixed viewing experience. When it works – during many of the indoor/nighttime/underground sections – it adds sumptuous depth and atmosphere to the proceedings. When it doesn’t – daytime, close-ups – it looks like an over-cranked HD home-movie, and it is most jarring.
Again, this bizarrely unharmonious affliction seems to affect the early, calmer sections of the film far more than the riotous, action-packed latter stages. Everything considered, the film is worth seeing in 3D and at the higher frame rate, if only because there’s every chance no film will be made or projected this way ever again.
With some of the judicious editing that transformed the theatrical versions of his original trilogy into the pure magnificence of the extended – and surely by now canonical – DVD cuts, there’s every opportunity for Jackson to rejig the unwieldy first act of An Unexpected Journey into something as elegant, energetic and cohesive as the main body of the film that follows it.
Until then, the first leg of Bilbo’s largely glorious and increasingly epic journey to the Lonely Mountain will remain only slightly hamstrung by those first few tiny steps.
‘Bilbo’s Wild Years’? Fans will need no invitation, but everyone else has every right to feel wary of an apparently over-extended film with a troubled production history.
Takes a while to get rolling, but when it does, a high 3 nudges over into a solid 4 thanks to a breathless closing section.
The board is set, the pieces are moving and we’re set up nicely for Jackson to tighten the noose with the love of second-act grit he displayed in The Two Towers.