Size isn’t everything, but cinema doesn’t come much bigger in scale than when Peter Jackson is telling tales. It’s a decade since the New Zealand filmmaker unveiled the last of his ‘Lord of the Rings’ films and went on to tackle the ultimate movie giant, ‘King Kong’. Now he’s back in the head of JRR Tolkien and applying the latest in technology to ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ (3D and an untried, super-speedy frame rate of 48 frames per second – 24 is usual). It’s the first of three films to be fashioned from the professor’s novel of faux-mediaeval fantasies chronicling how a magic ring (‘the precious’) came to be in the possession of a mere hairy-footed Hobbit in the first place.
The movie may be grand, but lots of its folk are tiny, which makes for unusual juxtapositions, both odd and amusing. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, squished) is a Hobbit living the pipe-and-slippers dream in the Shire. One night, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, towering over the artificially shortened Freeman) and 13 hungry dwarves – many of them with a knack for annoying the audience – come knocking and persuade Bilbo to join them on a quest to win back their kingdom. So begins a journey across wild terrain and back-to-back run-ins with vicious creatures. And all the while Bilbo is wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.
Many have wondered exactly how Jackson has found three movies in one novel. The answer is he opts for the detail and pacing of an extended TV series – an approach that has drawbacks over more than two-and-a-half hours. The initial coming-together of Bilbo and the dwarves feels overlong, and the start of their journey is sluggish and lacks a sense of momentum. There’s a tonal problem, too, as the early dominance of knockabout comedy gives the film an alienating whiff of kids’ TV (not helped by the softly-softly, artificial look of the set for the Shire). Only a flashback showing the loss of the dwarves’ kingdom recalls how breathtaking these films can be.
It’s during the film’s final third that, at last, we feel a true sense of peril and the dwarves’ journey starts to feel purposeful. The turning point is the entry of Gollum. The more dark it becomes, the more ‘The Hobbit’ becomes compelling as a story, and finds a fitting tone. It doesn’t help that the earlier, lighter scenes (lighter in look, as well as feel) seem overexposed. Or that some outdoor scenes look rooted to a studio set – a knock-on, you assume, of the fast frame rate, which can feel like watching a movie on a shoddy HD TV.
Thank Hobbitses for Gollum, then. And thank Hobbitses for the film’s more involving later scenes, including a showdown between two stone giants and a run-in with a villain who rivals Jabba the Hutt in the beauty stakes. It’s scenes such as these that leave you looking forward to the next one rather than wanting to strangle one of the more annoying dwarves or at least bury him in a hole and leave him behind in the Shire.