Every critic in the world certainly can be wrong, but not, I think, this time. As usual, I planned not to read any of the early reviews before watching the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. But, after firing out a few initial Tweets, I buckled and found everyone in agreement.
An Unexpected Journey is great fun, but there are a couple of rather big elephants, if not flesh-eating trolls, in the room. Having set such a diamond standard with The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, you can see why Jackson and Warners would want this to be an event of similar stature. But even stretching out Tolkien’s slender novel to two films, as was the original plan, would have been way too much. Jackson does his best in fleshing out the backstory and Middle Earth mythology, liberally adding preludes and flashbacks, but there’s just not enough story to go round.
And at just shy of three hours, frustratingly little actually happens. Actually, the story of The Hobbit is easily split into three acts: he goes away, he fights a dragon, he goes back and gets some gold. This is simply the first bit, and at such length, each nuance of every chapter is blustered out to the edge of credulity, and while the action set-pieces are breathtaking enough to hold you in, the initial dinner-party segment goes on for a week, and Gandalf’s portentous assembly with Galedriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) is so boring that, as someone else has pointed out, the dwarves actually leave without him. Meanwhile, with only fleeting glimpses of the Big Bads, the plot is reduced to a rather gnarly assault course.
The second problem is Jackson’s innovation to film the thing at 48 frames per second (the industry standard is 24) to give a crisper, more immersive viewing experience. As well as making you feel a bit sick, it feels more than anything like a BBC fantasy production from the 1980s, the 3D bringing to mind retro Chroma key visual effects, which serve to rob a lot of the fairytale magic of cinema. UK viewers will find that exacerbated by the sheer number of British TV actors on screen: James Nesbitt, Richard Armitage, the lovely Aidan Turner, Ken Stott. It's not necessarily a bad thing, because of course we much mention Martin Freeman. It’s a disservice to the man to say he’s just ‘playing himself’ here.
As nice guys everywhere will know, nice guys are not all the same, and there are several shades between his affable/incredulous Bilbo Baggins and Tim from The Office, Arthur Dent and Dr Watson. Ian McKellen is always great fun, here getting to play Gandalf with a lighter touch, as is the nature of the material. Special mention should go to Sylvester McCoy as batty and feral wizard Radagast, gleefully zapping round Middle Earth on his sleigh-pulled-by-rabbits, delighted in the knowledge that he now has to role to eclipse his unfairly-maligned Seventh Doctor in Who. Everybody already loves Andy Serkis as Gollum, whose encounter with Bilbo makes the film’s low-key centrepiece.
Yes, there is plenty to enjoy about The Hobbit, and it won’t ruin anyone’s Christmas. Just watch it in 24 frames per second, in 2D, and remember to take a nice nap in the middle. And watch out for that nine-hour adaptation of The Simarillion in ten years’ time.
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett