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It may be play­ing in cinemas but I’m not entirely con­vinced that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – and, by exten­sion, the forth­com­ing Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again – is actu­ally cinema. At least not cinema the way that this par­tic­u­lar old geez­er remem­bers it. First, let us put aside the tech­no­lo­gic­al innov­a­tion for a few para­graphs and focus on the story. These films have been been cre­ated to deliv­er an exper­i­ence to exist­ing fans of the Lord of the Rings films and is argu­ably even more tailored to their needs than, say, the Twilight fran­chise is to their fans. It cer­tainly makes as few con­ces­sions to the neutral.

Fans from Bratislava to Beirut want to spend as much time as pos­sible in Middle Earth and writer-director Peter Jackson deliv­ers – to the extent that sev­er­al famil­i­ar char­ac­ters make inel­eg­ant cameo appear­ances and the audi­ence gets to spend con­sid­er­able time accli­mat­ising. It really doesn’t mat­ter that I think the whole thing faffs around for far too long and already feels hyper-extended. Criticising The Hobbit for length is fall­ing in to the trap of review­ing the film you wish you were watch­ing instead of the one in front of you.

The story starts with an awk­wardly executed fram­ing device. Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) is writ­ing his mem­oirs – the same book he is seen writ­ing at the begin­ning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Indeed, it is the day of that very party, the day he will dis­ap­pear and the day that Frodo (Elijah Wood) will inher­it The Ring that gives every­one so much grief. It’s entirely appro­pri­ate that the film start this way – as I men­tioned before fans want this story to be tied in with the ori­gin­als as much as pos­sible – but the writ­ing is imme­di­ately clunki­er than you remem­ber it. The humour falls a little flat. There’s no life in the scene. It plays like one of those TV sketches where slightly under-rehearsed guest stars turn up dressed as their most fam­ous role.

A cross-fade later and Old Bilbo is now Young Bilbo. It is 60 years earli­er and Martin Freeman now wears the hairy feet at Bag End. One vis­it from Gandalf (Ian McKellen) later and he is being inund­ated by dwarves – a mot­ley bunch of singing, belch­ing, scratch­ing, coarse-acting little fel­las who want – nay, need – him to join them on their quest to regain their ances­tral home­land from the dragon – fire-breathing – who viol­ently turfed them out years before. After an extremely iron­ic exchange in which Bilbo effect­ively becomes a con­tract­or rather than an employ­ee of the com­pany – “I will not be respons­ible for his fate” says his super­visor Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) – Bilbo packs his bags for Erebor.

Frankly, it’s hard to ima­gine how Oakenshield and his dwarf com­pan­ions are ever going to get to the Lonely Mountain, let alone win it back. They are forever being res­cued in this film – twice by Gandalf, once by Bilbo and once by those giant eagles that would have saved every­one so much trouble if they’d arrived earli­er in The Return of the King. On their way, they meet – and are unne­ces­sar­ily scorn­ful of – the elves Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) as well as Christopher Lee as Saruman doing his best to sig­nal his even­tu­al inten­tion to turn bad.

But it’s one spe­cial guest star that we all want to see again, isn’t it, and he doesn’t dis­ap­point. The long scene between the always excel­lent Freeman and Andy Serkis’s Gollum is some­thing mar­vel­lous – worth the price of admis­sion if you are look­ing for an excuse. This is also the scene where the much-heralded new HFR (or 48fps) tech­no­logy starts to pay off but it sure takes a while get­ting there.

There’s been a lot of talk about this new­fangled pho­to­graphy and it does appear to be split­ting opin­ions – often between review­ers like me who seem to hate it and civil­ians who love it. Firstly, it isn’t what you are used to. It is very shiny. There isn’t much in the way of tex­ture to the image – there’s no such thing as film grain for example – and it seems like it is too brightly lit in many scenes. But it is bril­liantly clear, the 3D is easi­er on the eye than ever before and some shots really do ‘pop’ in ways that film (or 24fps) nev­er would.

At present the only mass audi­ence for mov­ing pic­tures above cinema’s 24 are video gamers (where some games refresh at over 100fps) and it’s that look that The Hobbit reminds me of. Of course, it heps that so much of the envir­on­ment is com­puter gen­er­ated but it is a video game aes­thet­ic that we are being sold here not a cine­mat­ic one – so much so it wouldn’t have sur­prised me if two of the dwarves had actu­ally turned out to be Italian plumb­ers.

Briefly, Pierce Brosnan almost-but-not-quite shakes off the smooth Bond repu­ta­tion in Love Is All You Need, a sea­side romance dir­ec­ted by Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, In a Better World). The mix is odd at first – as if Love Actually’s Richard Curtis had decided to try Dogme – but Bier’s skill with char­ac­ter gets us under the skin of these people so they can rise above the rom-com cari­ca­tures. The script tele­graphs things a bit, but Trine Dyrholm as hairdress­er Ida – unex­pec­tedly catch­ing the eye of fruit and veg tycoon Brosnan at their children’s wed­ding – shines throughout.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 December, 2012.


  • John Smythe says:

    As I under­stand it the stu­dio – Warner Bros? – insisted on cut­ting 20 minutes. ‘More! Cut more!’ I hear you cry. But what was cut was the detail that dif­fer­en­ti­ated the dwarves – sketched in their back­stor­ies and indi­vidu­al­ised their char­ac­ter­ist­ics. I’d rather have had all that and lost 30mins of the gra­tu­it­ous, repet­it­ive and ridicu­lously car­toon­ish fight scenes that take us right out of the story and reduce our engage­ment to noth­ing more than admir­ing the tech­no­lo­gic­al illu­sions. The extremity of medi­um becomes the less­er message. 

    Consider which Dwarves get single cred­its as sup­port­ing leads and how invis­ible they are as dis­tinct­ive char­ac­ters. That was nev­er the inten­tion. Or is it a strategy to get even older farts like me to buy the DVD?

    • Dan says:

      I think the tale you tell, John, is anoth­er ploy to get fans to go back mul­tiple times – like the dif­fer­ent tech­nic­al formats.