Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt
Running Time: 169 min
Release: 13th December
Unless you’ve been excavating the Mines of Moria for the last year, you know The Hobbit is a prequel to Peter Jackson’s magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy, the closest thing in modern cinema to the biblical epics of old Hollywood. Even if this fact had escaped you, twenty minutes of quite unnecessary exposition sellotapes the film somewhat awkwardly to the bottom of LoTR. Bilbo Baggins (Martin ‘born to play a hobbit’ Freeman) lives a life of quietude and comfort, concerned with nothing more pressing than doilies and dishware. His leisurely lifestyle is abruptly upturned when the charmingly meddlesome wizard Gandalf (the ever affable Ian McKellen) shows up at unannounced at his door with twelve dwarves and adventurous ambitions in tow. Overcoming his initial reluctance, Bilbo is soon backpacking across Middle Earth with this offbeat crew, hoping to liberate their home from an ancient evil.
Make no mistake; The Hobbit is a lesser class of film than its big brothers. It’s certainly as visually striking, with the odd substitute of New Zealand landscapes for English countryside still as successful a surrogate as ever. However Jackson’s trademark cocktail of practical and digital effects has begun to muddy, with the second taking a near Star Wars prequels level of precedence. Where it works it works tremendously—Andy Serkis’ Gollum once again sets the standard for CG creations—however overindulgent animation makes large scale actions scenes feeling cartoonish and exuberant, and far less tense than the mostly gritty and grounded battles of LotR. The main villain, The Pale Orc, makes for a dubious digital foe, especially when compared to the decade old effects makeup of the terrifying Uruk-hai.
The effects aren’t the only aspect of the film that feels cartoonish. The Hobbit delivers a far more whimsical view of Middle Earth that you’re used to. Characters like comic relief wizard Radagast the Brown and the bizarrely verbose Goblin King combine with some downright silly action sequences (mountain on mountain boxing match anyone?) to craft—for better or worse—a far more fantastical tale than Jackson’s previous trilogy.
And trilogy is the operating word here; with the announcement of The Hobbit (a significantly lighter tome than LoTR) being stretched over three films, many contested that it’d be a case of—to quote Mr Baggins—’too little butter on too much bread’. This isn’t quite true, as the film is more unevenly paced than it is padded. At times it feels as leisurely as Jackson’s whopper four hour extended cuts, with many scenes bulging with needless cameos and exposition. Then suddenly it’s off again, realising it has somewhere to be, tripping over more important and interesting moments in its hurry to catch up with itself.
Its over stretched story wasn’t the only controversy surrounding the film before it’s release; Jackson’s decision to shoot the film at 48 frames per second raised considerable ire. Most theatres will be showing the film in a standard 24 fps presentation, however the high frame rate vision is worth hunting down—once you get past the initial inertia the effect affords the film a crisp flair, especially during crowd scenes and those utilizing rich environmental effects.
For better or worse Middle Earth has changed, and the answer to whether Jackson can fully relive the majesty of LoTR is still two years away. As it stands The Hobbit is worth the trip, if only to revisit one of the most magnificently realized cinematic universes of all time.