Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3D HFR
From the off, there is a tonal contradiction at the heart of the first of (deep breath) three Hobbit prequels, which is the clash of whimsy against portent. On the one hand, we’re treated to all the goofy dwarf antics, slapstick set-pieces and heroic do-goodery, yet we’re barely a third of the way through a story built primarily on bedtime fable daring-do. The gasp you’ll elicit by the time the film smash-cuts to pre-credit black may well be one of (a) a burgeoning expectation for the next chapter, (b) a release of exhaustion or (c) you’re just glad it’s over. Whatever the feeling, there’s ten miles of mildly inconvenient road ahead after this and your first sensation by the end of it is not so much anticipation as frustration. Helms Deep and kidnapped Halflings there ain’t.
Curiously, the tempo is on the rails whenever we’re in the realm of the book. Rivendell is introduced as if we’ve never seen Fellowship of the Ring, yet when Jackson includes Galadriel and Saruman, they are REintroduced to us because we saw The Lord of the Rings. Betraying their status in the film as little more than fan service, or at worst, filler. Their appearances designed to convey an attitude of complacency in the free folk of Middle Earth only reveal indulgent writing, gorging on brand recognition. The portent once again clashes with the whimsical, yes tone must be offset occasionally but the burning sensation behind all of this is that danger has been artificially introduced into a story that inherently has little to no consequence on any of its surviving heroes. The classic prequel conundrum, making the road ahead look very long indeed. The ever-present prequel spectre of George Lucas even lingers here, as the ring slips onto Bilbo’s finger in a direct riff on Frodo’s accidental taste of ring-magic in The Prancing Pony (“It’s like poetry, they rhyme”).
Do not despair yet, hope remains in the simple joys – aside from an awkwardly directed meeting at Bilbo’s – Dwarven camaraderie is rife in many a scrap and sing-a-long (although Adam Brown is a wooden Ori) and Gandalf and Bilbo are every bit as charming as you’d expect such a pair of quintessentially British-cum-Middle Earthlings. The action ranges from the unfocused (Radagast leads a pack of Wargs in circles, much like the audience), the overlong (the Dwarves ambush the Troll camp for what seems like ten minutes) to the gloriously ludicrous as Jackson’s cartoonish visual impulses (that in particular, clashed with Return of the King’s semi-biblical grandeur) fit perfectly as the Company lead thousands of angry Goblins on a merry chase across rickety bridges and see-sawing scaffoldings, a moment wherein the consequence-free antics are embraced with aplomb.
Given the troubled history of the project, the only clear imperfections lie in some of the aesthetics. The Dwarves seem to visually lack the cultural heritage found in their Elven/Gondorian counterparts in Rings, although we’re in far less grave and deliberatley archaic circumstances. For all that Jackson has left his mark once again in Tolkien, the signs of Guillermo del Toro’s (who now shares a co-writer credit) directorial efforts are evident in an Orc nemesis who bears a striking resemblance to Hellboy 2’s troll muscle Mr Wink (he even has a metal claw hand) and flashbacks to Dwarf foundries where giant pendulum-like hammers pound precious ores (clockwork mechanisms – pure del Toro). Howard Shore’s score lacks subtlety, key McGuffins (blades, rings and alike) are all flagged up via familiar themes as we’re reminded of what we’ve already seen, at times the score seems to scream ‘IT’S GALADRIEL’ or ‘HERE’S SARUMAN!’ The Dwarf Company being the only new musical motif to leave any impact, a brassy anthem with all the pompous basso you’d expect from Gimli’s lineage.
As for those pesky 48 frames per second? It’s safe to say that it wouldn’t suit The Hangover (occasionally the film resembles, you said it, a BBC drama), the 3D is certainly sharpened although the low lighting in Bag End still brings up old 3D woes. The revelation of 48fps is in the digital effects, Gollum looks flawless in 24 frames, in 48 he’s startlingly real as are all of the creatures from the Trolls to the Goblin King. Doubling the frames has brought the real and the virtual closer together than the industry standard of 24fps. The result is a paradoxical effect wherein the rubbery bounciness of CG is eliminated via the extra frames, putting the animation into sharp focus. A game changer you might say?
This is a first act in a trilogy we never asked for, yet it’s one that has virtually conscripted you into showing up for the next two instalments by the time the credits roll. Unlike Lord of the Rings, which had earned your tears and love by the end of Fellowship. The Hobbit so far only gains your approval, as if you have no choice but to invest in characters who are likeable, but not loveable. It’s a shame to say that the most profound element in this new addition to a series of emotionally and thematically resonant films is a technological one, but it’s hard to imagine anything on show here residing in our fondest memories in the coming years.