VOD film review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Ivan Radford | On 12, Nov 2013
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Richard Armitage, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Sylvester McCoy
Watch An Unexpected Journey online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
In a land of myth, and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young person. His name… Bilbo Baggins.
That’s what springs to mind as Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth. With its patented 48 frames per second cinema projection, everything in The Hobbit had a hyper-real look that immediately recalled a BBC drama. Combined with a lengthy opening voiceover about dwarves (Ian Holm doing his best John Hurt impression), a dragon and the odd dodgy special effect, it felt like watching an extremely long episode of Merlin. Now The Hobbit is on Netflix UK, that feeling hasn’t really changed.
In a way, that should be totally appropriate: The Hobbit is a smaller beast than The Lord of the Rings, a children’s romp rather than a sprawling fantasy epic. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told the director that. And so we get both: TV-like images and a bloated runtime.
Fans may rejoice that writers Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo del Toro managed to squeeze 2 hours and 40 minutes out of barely seven chapters of JRR Tolkien’s tiny text, but only half of it has anything to do with the text. The rest are bolt-on sequences designed to fill the film’s unnecessary length.
The Necromancer and Radagast the Brown (McCoy), each mentioned just once in the book, are given a 20-minute tangent, while Jackson goes to great lengths to include a horde of familiar faces from his last trek through Middle Earth. It’s so heavily padded, it’s amazing he didn’t take The Hobbit to Isengard. (Now an Extended Edition has been released, perhaps Warner Bros will release an Un-Extended Edition that only lasts an hour and a half.)
“There is little to tell about their stay [at Rivendell],” says the book. The screenplay ignores that, conjuring up a council of great wizards at Elrond’s (Weaving) house, who manage to spend quarter of an hour vaguely discussing dark portents for the future. Ian Holm and Elijah Wood’s cameo at the start feels even more irrelevant; OAP Bilbo’s book-writing framework makes no sense when mixed with Tolkien’s original third-person narration.
These deviations wouldn’t be a problem if they were done well, but after trimming The Lord of the Rings without losing the spirit of the book, Jackson seems to go the other way and stuff things in willy-nilly. An Orc called Azog (an impressively snarling Manu Bennett) is beefed up to become an antagonist, while Radagast exists solely to introduce some 3D rabbit racing. It’s less an adaptation of The Hobbit, more a prequel to the previous trilogy – an uneven approach that risks putting this half-silly, half-ominous blockbuster in Phantom Menace territory.
Fortunately, The Hobbit just about avoids becoming The Lord of the Rings: Episode I. That’s mostly because of the excellent cast. McKellen inhabits Gandalf as casually as a wizard puffing smoke rings and Freeman’s uptight Bilbo is perfectly pitched. The dwarves blend into one giant hairball, but Richard Armitage commands a steely presence as King Thorin Oakenshield, while Sylvester McCoy summons all his kooky charm to stop you resenting Radagast altogether.
The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Gollum. Andy Serkis’ mo-capped monster slithers around his dark cave spewing riddles with venom – a spellbinding sequence that shows Jackson still knows how to omit and expand to great effect. That it works so well, though, only jars with the rest of the script; it falls to Howard Shore’s grand score to hold everything together. Deftly linking leitmotifs from the last trilogy with the dwarves’ new, brooding song, the soundtrack achieves what the film partly fails to do: recapture that feeling of Middle Earth.
Which brings us back to those visuals. When he isn’t inserting bits from The Lord of the Rings Appendices, Jackson’s eye for action is as solid as ever. Sequences in the goblin caves are exciting, if a bit video gamey, and a brief flash of mountain giants is jaw-dropping stuff. It’s just a shame that the director chose to film it all at 48fps. Thank goodness, then, that Netflix hasn’t got to that stage of streaming yet. Without the frame rate to distract, there is a nice level of detail to be admired in the sweeping New Zealand landscapes – while the feeling of everything moving in double-time (not a problem during the fun climax, but unfamiliar when watching Bilbo quick-march through Bag End) can be forgotten.
Despite this unexpectedly messy journey being stretched out for so long, the performances, set pieces and catchy score build up to a fun pace in the final half. And so The Hobbit goes there and back and there and back and there and back again. And like its frustrated eponymous hero, you’ll enjoy most of it. Maybe it’s not so dissimilar to Merlin after all.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.