It was with decided trepidation that I ventured to the cinema over the Christmas holidays to view the first instalment in Peter Jackson's much commented upon Hobbit Trilogy. Between The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien's writings were a cornerstone of my childhood and there is nothing as disappointing in a pop culture sense than seeing a book you've adored poorly adapted for the big screen.The Hobbit is not a small book but it is about a quarter of The Lord of The Rings in word count so the idea that it required a trilogy of films struck me as odd. I read the early reviews and was not hopeful. So it is a delight then to report that all my fears were largely unfounded and that Peter Jackson has once again delivered a well thought out version of Tolkien's middle earth in today's flick of the day The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Our return to middle earth opens with a visually stunning preamble telling the tale of how the Dwarves were driven out of their kingdom beneath the mountain by the dragon Smaug. Forced to abandon their homes and great wealth, the dwarves roam the land taking up metal work were they can get it, a wandering people. We fast forward to an ageing Bilbo Baggins, once again played by Ian Holm, attempting to tell his story for the benefit of his nephew Frodo. Before long we meet a young Bilbo played with a sturdy air of confusion by Martin Freeman. He is idling away his days in The Shire smoking his pipe and enjoying the quiet life when much to his chagrin, the wizard Gandalf,who is again played by the excellent Ian McKellen, seeks to send him on an adventure. Soon enough he is best with a party of dwarves arriving on his doorstep seeking to eat him out of house and hobbit hole. After initially turning down their offer of employment as burglar in their company, Bilbo eventually sets off into the wilds beyond the Shire in the company of Gandalf, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin,Nori, Dori, Ori and of course the leader of the company Thorin. There are many obstacles to face along the way from Trolls to Orcs and the action proceeds apace across the gorgeous New Zealand countryside. Given the massive running time Jackson time has afforded himself, it is nice to see him put The Hobbit in the context of the wider Lord of The Rings tale and there are lengthy scenes explaining the rise of the darkness in Mirkwood. As this episode ends, we leave the company in sight of the Misty Mountains.
When the film gets going, it is an enjoyable thrill ride of a journey and makes for compelling cinema. If there is one criticism however it is that it does take awhile to reach this point. The opening chapter of the novel is called An Unexpected Party and this one party takes a good 45 minutes to take place. Jackson cannot be accused of not being due care and attention to the text, rather he luxuriates in it being as faithful as he possibly could be to every twist and turn in the narrative.
The dwarves feel well cast but it is difficult to judge because we don't really get much of a chance to know each in person, there is just too many of them. However hopefully this will be resolved over the course of the trilogy. It would be a shame were the characters to remain undeveloped.
The action scenes are well judged by Jackson though it does feel like CGI is in a much greater use than in The Lord of The Rings. This is not necessarily a problem but at times the screen feels almost cartoonish, the landscape too soft edged but it is a minor criticism.
I cannot comment on the quality or lack thereof of the much vaunted 48 frames per second 3D effect for I chose to view the film in good old fashioned 2D. Perhaps that is comment enough. I was irked to see however that there was a much smaller selection of 2D screenings on offer in comparison to 3D. This would seem like a new method of coercion by the studios to force you into paying extra for an inferior viewing format. Alas was it ever thus.
I look forward to the next instalment eagerly.