The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ★★

Critics have described this first installment in the Hobbit saga as bloated, ponderous and too episodic but frankly these are the exact same criticisms I felt about Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy. You may ask why I bothered seeing this latest trip to Middle Earth at the cinema if I didn’t enjoy the previous Tolkien tales, but it is simply because, if I can’t enjoy a film of this scale on the big screen what chance would I have at home?

I know Hobbits and Dwarves have short legs but does this journey have to be quite so tortuously slow? Jackson takes the original Tolkien text and stretches its simple story to within breaking point, adding appendices tales to help tie it more closely with the Lord of the Rings, and in doing so give a nostalgic kick to the diehard fans out there. However, this decision may well backfire on Jackson and company because it doesn’t just slow the stories momentum, it often kills it stone dead, particularly during the numerous false starts the film possesses. Post-Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, seems incapable of telling a tight, perfectly paced and engaging story. Instead his stories are now meandering messes of pointless subplots and superfluous details that increasingly test the patience (see his tedious remake of King Kong for proof of this).

To call this film overindulgent would be an understatement. It is flabby, unwieldy and dramatically inert, only coming to life in fits and starts before getting out of breath again, due to its grotesque girth, and having to take a very long rest. You could practically cut this film down to an hour or less and I’m not really sure anything of great importance would be lost. It is a perfect example of a story being stretched beyond its means for no other reason than financial gain. Such a cynical move is hardly new for a Hollywood studio but it is the filmgoing public that ultimately suffers, both in the wallet and on the numbed arse cheeks. I had very low expectations going into the film and amazingly, The Hobbit, still managed to disappoint.

Martin Freeman is, well, Martin Freeman in comically oversized feet. He is the very definition of a one-note actor relying on his trademark looks of exhausted bemusement and befuddlement to get him through any situation. Sure, his fussy nature fits the character of Bilbo but there should be more to him than merely reluctance and bemusement. Just as Ewan McGregor struggled to fill the sizeable shoes of Alec Guinness in the Star Wars saga, Freeman is equally out of his depth as Ian Holm’s understudy. Perhaps in later parts of the story (I’m informed that film one finishes around chapter six of the novel) his character will grow, and his performance with it, but in this first installment he is a flat and uninspiring central focus for the story.

Even the cast of characters has ballooned since our last visit to the Shire and surrounding areas. Whilst this can’t solely be levelled at Jackson’s door, any adaptation would require a healthy number of dwarves, only a few of these pint sized characters leave much of an impression, positive or otherwise. Instead many are there to make up the numbers and generally cause confusion as you try to remember their names and relationships. As much as I wasn’t a fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy at least the core group of characters were well defined and identifiable compared to this ungainly rabble of indistinct shorties. I particularly disliked Rent-a-Bean, Richard Armitage, as the rightful heir to the Dwarf kingdom. Disappointingly, even the good Rivendell regulars - Weaving and Blanchett - flounder here as they are saddled with endless and tedious conversations of little consequence. I know Elves are supposed to live for a very long time but there is little excuse for such pointless waffling that fails to progress the story.

Although I watched the film in common or garden 24fps, the film still had an artificial appearance. Whilst Middle Earth is a fantasy world it is still supposed to feel real, as are the creatures within it, yet the oversaturated colours and shiny special effects create a disconnect between the world and audience, even if the film is packed with some nice little details and stunning New Zealand landscapes. It is an issue I find with a lot of Weta produced effects - they are technically brilliant but they often aren’t able to trick my brain into believing they are real. The only moment where it does truly work in is the appearance of Gollum which is a perfect marriage of technology and performance to bring to life the only genuinely interesting character in the entire film. Once again Andy Serkis demonstrates what a great performer he is, capturing a complex and nuanced character.

Despite this incredibly negative review the film does possess some effective moments, normally when the pace picks up and something actually happens. Yet even during these positive interludes the film still fails to soar as many of the sequences feel remarkably similar to those in Jackson’s previous Middle-Earth movies or just too busy to be dramatically satisfying. At least McKellan is still wonderful and the production design is exemplary, it just isn’t quite enough.

Whilst fans of the Lord of the Rings films will get considerably more out of The Hobbit than I did (even if they too should lower expectations), I don’t think I’ll be continuing on this journey any time soon.

Bilbo Baggins - “I do believe the worst is behind us”

Let’s hope he is right.