23 January 2013
The time has come once again, young friends, to grab your walking stick, saddle up your pony (who's hopefully called Bill) and prepare for a trek through Middle Earth once again - for the first of Peter Jackson's latest string of Tolkien adaptations is upon us, and thankfully, whilst it's not an absolute triumph, it's entertaining enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen.
If you're unfamiliar with the close-to-legend plot of the Hobbit, do yourself a favour: stop reading this review, and go buy a copy of The Hobbit. This'll still be here when you're finished. But for the lazy: wizard recruits titular little person to aid a group of thirteen other little (but slightly bulkier) people in their quest to reclaim their kingdom from the dragon what nicked it. Or to put it another way - it's another movie about fucking walking from the fucking Shire to a fucking mountain in the east.
Don't let the pithy plot summary dissuade you, though, as Mr Jackson has done a sterling job of fleshing out the plot of the book - and whilst superficially, the plots are similar, there's a lot of emphasis placed on the telling, rather than the plot turns themselves. The embellishments on the six chapters of the novel that this, the first of three movies is based on is pleasing enough, mercilessly foreshadowing the dark times to come, and expanded on a few passingly-mentioned characters, upgrading Azog the Goblin from a long-dead enemy to a secondary antagonist, as well as an expanded role for Radaghast the Brown. As Gandalf muses at the start of the film: 'all good stories deserve embellishment', and whilst they may not sit entirely comfortably with Rings enthusiasts and scholars, in terms of the films structure, they work wonderfully.
Stylistically, the change between the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films is similar to the books - The Hobbit playing lighter and with a touch more humour about it, which Jackson translates to film elegantly whilst still maintaining his penchant for the visually epic and arresting. It doesn't quite reach the highs of the first of his previous trilogy, thanks to a relative lack of investment in the characters, and a strange bloodlessness that removes any real sense of threat. They're still visually arresting, and not without a touch of wit, but there's nothing that can quite match the Mines of Moria sequence here, despite their best efforts.
From a technical standpoint, it's difficult to say exactly where I sit. 3D here is as perfunctory as it ever was - though there are a couple of moments where it's used to good effect, it still feels like a lame excuse to charge more for the entry fee. It is, however, the crispest 3D I've experienced since Avatar, thanks to the 4K resolution and high frame-rate filming. Unfortunately, this added fidelity can on occasion draw attention to the seams in...well...everything. From the irritatingly obvious join between actor's skin and skull-cap on Dwalin's head, to the almost toy-like quality of the various weapons wielded - now that we can see every tiny detail of a scene, it's easier than ever to have your suspension of disbelief come crashing back down to earth. The sheer breadth and majesty of Jackson's vision, as well as the absolutely stellar CGI work, go a long way to mitigating this, but as stated, such little irritations can prove distracting.
Fortunately, the film is strongest when looking at it from a performance point of view - assisting in drawing your attention away from the visual oddities. Particular credit should go to James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Dean O'Gorman and Aidan Turner, all bringing stoic turns with just the right amount of humour to their respective dwarves. Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo, and his scene with the always fantastic Andy Serkis - returning as Gollum - is as pitch perfect a rendition as one could possibly hope for. Richard Amitage is perhaps a touch flat as Thorin Oakenshield, and the rest of the dwarves aren't really given enough screen time to really appreciate.
The most inspired bit of casting, however, must go to Slyvester McCoy as Radaghast - a shambling living earth-pile of a wizard who none-the-less displays the spryness of his less disheveled counterpart Gandalf - who is still elegantly played, less grumpy this time, by Ian McKellen. Whilst his scenes are almost entirely the creations of Jackson, Walsh and Del Toro's screenplay, McCoy plays them with a sly absent-mindedness that belies an over-active mind and his presence is missed after he vanishes about half way through the movie.
Overall, An Unexpected Journey isn't quite the tantalising prospect of adventure that The Fellowship of the Ring was - in part due to it all feeling a little bit like a retread with less blood and more slapstick comedy - but it's still hugely enjoyable, and even though it's a stately 169 minutes long, it never feels it, and come the end, Smaug's desolation in December 2013 can't come fast enough.