Skepticism has loomed over The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, for several months now. The doubt first began when it was announced that Jackson would be splitting J.R.R. Tolkien’s 310-page book into a trilogy of films that would accumulate to around eight hours of cinema. It was only heightened months later when footage was first screened to a disappointed audience who found his innovative use of high frame rate filmmaking an eyesore.
The sad news for The Lord Of The Rings fanatics is that these cynics are mostly correct.
The film opens with an epilogue that shows the takeover of the Dwarves’s homeland by a malevolent dragon named Smaug. Defeated, they retreat from their place of origin in search of a way to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs. Their pursuit leads the band, alongside wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), to The Shire and the home of Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) – the ideal candidate to take back their stolen treasure due to his miniscule height and unfamiliarity to Smaug.
Understood to be a Hobbit in search of great adventure, the Dwarves soon discover that Bilbo isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. He’s content, instead, to live an unassuming life tending to his home. But, nonetheless, his need for something bigger takes hold and Bilbo is swept along on their dangerous quest.
At a grueling three hours in length what little story transpires in The Hobbit once Bilbo and the Dwarves embark on their mission is buried under layers upon layers of redundant padding. Things happen in Jackson’s film – the band are captured by trolls who desire to eat them, they discover a cave full of loot, and a hazardous detour takes them into a mountain underground bursting with goblins – but very little of what occurs serves any real dramatic purpose.
The Hobbit, therefore, is a lot of filler and very little killer. One moment of peril simply leads to the next with a very slight thread connecting them. Each situation is resolved, furthermore, by the likeliest of means, be it the perfectly timed arrival of Gandalf or the descent of giant birds that are able to carry our heroes to safety yet are seemingly unable to just fly them to their destination.
As previously stated, Peter Jackson has filmed this opening outing in 48 frames per second; a higher frame rate than the standard 24 frames per second that cinemagoers will be accustomed to seeing. His intentions are to create a movie that appears more lifelike than ever before, as if the screen has turned into a mirror through which we view another world.
In some regards, his innovative venture is a success. The sheer level of detail it captures is awe-inspiring. In the aforementioned sequence in which Bilbo and his gang are captured by trolls, for instance, you can see even the subtlest of blemishes on these extraordinary creatures; every whisker and wrinkle is on display here.
However, the 48fps can also become something of an eyesore. The hyper-realism is often a strain on the retinas during the film’s grand action scenes, it sometimes carries the aesthetic of a daytime television show, and there are moments in which it appears the film is being shown at 1.5x the speed it should be. Whether this is the future of cinema or a commendable experiment gone wrong, therefore, is still very much up for debate.
Thankfully, it’s not all a catastrophic disaster. Peter Jackson’s ability to bring the world of Middle Earth to life is still a staggering technical achievement, from the masterful production design to the state-of-the-art special effects. He also infuses his film with a whimsy and eccentricity that was non-existent in the brooding, dark The Lord Of The Rings films and will allow The Hobbit to reach a younger fan base.
The standout here, however, is Sherlock and The Office’s Martin Freeman who effortlessly steps into the tiny shoes of Bilbo Baggins. His gradual development from an unassuming adventure seeker who’s way out of his depth into a courageous, sword-wielding hero is by far The Hobbit’s most compelling aspect.
Still, no amount of visual splendour and sublime acting can justify the daunting 169 minute running time of The Hobbit. Jackson stretches Tolkien’s story to the extent that it becomes an endurance test for viewers and regardless of whether you see it in 24 or 48 frames per second it’s truly a film that outstays its welcome.
As the newest installment in a franchise that’s universally loved, this is very much a disappointment.