It’s that time of year when we are snowed under frantically binge-viewing screeners ahead of our various year-end commitments, as well as buying the odd Christmas present for our nearest and dearest. Despite all this, we did manage to record a short podcast this week to discuss Peter Jackson’s (hopefully) final offering from Middle-Earth, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Even in high-frame-rate IMAX 3D, it proved a slightly underwhelming affair.
After the phenomenal success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy it was a foregone conclusion that sooner or later we would see The Hobbit adapted for the big screen within the same universe. For a number of years, Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro was attached to the project, but perhaps inevitably the film eventually fell into the lap of Jackson himself. The general consensus to this news, once the fan boys had consoled themselves that del Toro wouldn’t be bringing his unique brand of otherworldly weirdness to Middle Earth, was that Jackson was probably the best man for the job.
There are a number of issues to discuss concerning this new screen version of Tolkien’s 1937 children’s story, not least the fact that what is hitting screens now is merely part one of a newly conceived trilogy. At just over 300 pages, there seems no real justification why The Hobbit should be any longer than a single feature film, and when the decision was made to split the book in two, cynics and supporters alike saw it as little more than a cash grab, inspired by the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A few months later, word got out that the project was to expand further, becoming a trilogy of its own. Jackson and Co. were quick to point out that the series would incorporate plot details from the Lord of the Rings‘ appendices to fill out the story, but there was something clearly afoot.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (to be followed by The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again), covers just over 100 pages of the source text in about 169 minutes of screen time, meaning that a seasoned speed-reader could probably manage to read Tolkien’s novel faster than they could watch Jackson’s adaptation. A depressing thought to some, but certainly not a criticism on its own. The fact of the matter is, however, that the film moves at a snail’s pace, playing out closer to a TV drama series such as Game of Thrones, than a regular feature film. The scriptwriters are in no rush to tell their story, and admittedly haven’t got too much to tell, resulting in close to three hours of long, drawn out scenes – mostly between clownish dwarves and neurotic hobbits – that while entertaining in their own right, cry out for a judicious editorial reassessment.
The other major talking point surrounding the release of the film is its pioneering new digital film technology. The Hobbit has been shot at 48 frames per second, twice as fast as regular films, which are shot at 24fps. The result is that audiences literally see twice as much information every second, more individual stills strung together, creating a much higher resolution image. To say that the initial response to this has been mixed is something of an understatement. Many critics have been extremely vocal in their dislike of the new High Frame Rate look of The Hobbit, declaring that it cheapens and flattens the image, and that the higher resolution only serves to show up the artifice of the onscreen world.
Much like the first time you laid eyes on an HD television screen, the new, clearer, crisper image certainly takes some getting used to, but personally I found it far less of a problem than I had anticipated. If this technology is to become the standard, make-up artists and set designers have most definitely been given a rude awakening and will need to up their game considerably if their work is to continue to suspend disbelief, but in other areas I felt the result was rather spectacular. Few vistas lend themselves better to HD presentation than the epic landscapes of New Zealand, and whenever the story took its characters out into the countryside, the results were incredible.
The same must be said for the film’s use of 3D. Anyone who has sat through a 3D presentation over the past few years will no doubt have noticed that beyond the light loss, discomfort of wearing glasses, and overall frustrating effect of this perverse visual intrusion, detail is lost to a very noticeable blurring effect whenever there is camera movement during a 3D image. The single biggest reason for the introduction of 48fps technology is to combat this blurring effect, and in The Hobbit that is most certainly the case. Right from the get-go Jackson puts his theory to the test, employing an endless series of long swooping camera movements over mountains, down tunnels and the image – whether real or digitally created – retains its clarity throughout. Whatever other problems certain individuals may have with the effect, there is no denying that it has accomplished what it set out to overcome.
And so to the storytelling itself. How does The Hobbit compare to its beloved predecessors? Those familiar with the source text should already be aware that The Hobbit is a far shorter, simpler tale that was aimed squarely at a young audience. Essentially the story of thirteen dwarves who, on the advice of the wizard Gandalf, recruit an initially unwilling hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, and set out from The Shire to the Lonely Mountain. There a vicious dragon named Smaug has taken over the dwarves’ home and it is their intent to kill him and reclaim their gold and their home. Along the way, Bilbo Baggins encounters Gollum and the One Ring comes into his possession, which serves as catalyst for the events in Lord of the Rings, set 60 years later. That’s basically it, although this unlikely collection of diminutive heroes must overcome numerous obstacles, opponents and perilous terrain before they encounter their dragon foe.
While striking a similar tone to the earlier films, there is a lightness of touch at work here that wasn’t always present before. The dwarves, while paired off conveniently with rhyming names such as Fili and Kili, or Balin and Dwalin to help us keep track of them all, are essentially a troupe of clumsy, comedic clowns, who coincidentally can hold their own in a scrap with a goblin horde. Martin Freeman replaces Ian Holm as a younger version of Bilbo Baggins and very quickly finds his furry feet with the material. He excels to such a degree that within minutes you forget that he hasn’t been in these films since the very beginning, and is only joining the likes of Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving onscreen for the first time. The baker’s dozen of performers playing the dwarves do a competent and consistent job, though none stand out particularly, save for Richard Armitage as their leader Thorin Oakenshield.
Former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy has a memorable role as eccentric wizard Radagast the Brown – a character only spoken of in the novel, but here a notable supporting character – while antipodean actor Barry Humphries, best known as Dame Edna Everage, provides the performance capture for the repugnant Goblin King. Speaking of performance capture, it should come as no surprise to learn that Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, and that his performance effortlessly steals the show. Playing a younger, less corrupted and embittered version of the character, he is given plenty of room to play around with the role and his iconic Game of Riddles with unwanted “house” guest Bilbo proves one of the film’s standout scenes.
Elsewhere, The Hobbit is as epic and ambitious in scope as one might expect, but also as long, drawn out and relentless as we had feared. News that Jackson is preparing a longer cut of the film for its Blu-ray release is more worrying than tantalising, as the film struggles with its pacing and lacks any discernible structure. Antagonists, such as the one-armed Pale Orc, are introduced as much to pad out the script as they are to give the heroes someone to run away from, while the appearance of Saruman, Galadriel and even Elijah Wood’s Frodo seem to have been included solely to remind more casual audiences of how this story relates to what they already know.
The result is a film that is difficult to appreciate on its own. It is experimenting with cutting edge technology and literally changing the face of filmmaking in ways most audience members will not be ready for, and may lead to knee-jerk rejection from less forgiving viewers. It also fails to deliver a fully rounded narrative for the very reason that it isn’t one – but rather an inflated opening act stretched to a butt-numbing two-and-three-quarter hours. It also takes numerous elements, characters and plot strands from a beloved property and does new things with them – something that many loyal fans often struggle to accept. Needless to say, the resulting viewing experience is somewhat mixed.
However, despite all this, there is no denying that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a rollicking adventure that follows a delightfully amiable central protagonist, ably supported by a veteran thesp reprising one of his most beloved roles, who encounters one of cinema’s best villains (or shall we say demonic foils) of recent years. So despite all of its flaws, growing pains, inconsistencies and tenuous associations, The Hobbit still manages to entertain, thanks to Peter Jackson’s inimitable enthusiasm and energy for Middle Earth and its inhabitants. I went into the film filled with skepticism and utterly nonplussed by what I saw to be a barefaced cash grab. Now that the film is over, I am perfectly willing to embrace it – warts and all – and eagerly anticipate the rest of the adventure, even at a speed of 48 frames per second.