Self-confessed Tolkien nerd and Film4.com editor Catherine Bray shares her thoughts on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

"This scene comes alive" - Gollum is a highlight

“This scene comes alive” – Gollum is a highlight

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a film it would be easy to review in an extreme way. Swept up in the scale of the filmmaking, the stirring score and the excitement of seeing iconic characters – Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum et al – back on the big screen in the hands of Peter Jackson, the man whose vision so successfully realised The Lord Of The Rings as an epic cinematic proposition ten years ago, it could be tempting to declare An Unexpected Journey a rather greater artistic success than it is.

Equally, faced with the unfamiliar 48 frames per second filming technique and a narrative that diverges much more wildly from the original book than LOTR did, plus the now difficult-to-swallow assertion that this story needed to be told over three films, it might be tempting for both Tolkien purist and skeptic alike to slam this first film as irredeemable.

It is an anxious film. Adjustments have been made throughout apparently with the aim of recalling elements that worked well in The Lord Of The Rings. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is given an Aragornesque makeover. The most attractive of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner, Being Human), now boasts archery skills reminiscent of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) in the Rings trilogy. The happily piecemeal nature of the company’s early adventures in The Hobbit – an encounter with trolls, capture by goblins, pursuit by goblins and wargs – is augmented (or not) by the insertion of an overarching chase subplot headed up by grudge-bearing goblin Azog (Manu Bennett, looking somewhat less lovely than he did in Spartacus: Blood & Sand), who in Tolkien’s original mythology bit the dust about two centuries earlier, leaving his son to pop up at the end of The Hobbit – though to be fair, we could conceivably be talking about a different Azog. The name might be the goblin equivalent of John.

None of this is seriously detrimental, although you wish the filmmakers had a bit more confidence in what made the nimble, rollicking and usually humble The Hobbit exciting in itself, and spent less time trying to over-cement a family resemblance with the more melancholy grandeur of The Lord Of The Rings.

One area where they seem much less concerned with continuity is the look of the film – specifically, in their adoption of a higher frame rate, giving us 48 frames per second where we had the standard 24 in Rings. 48fps is new technology and I’m certainly not against it in principle – it could work wonderfully for the first instalment of a new effects-laden mega-franchise, a first Avatar, say. It might even make watching a Transformers movie marginally more interesting than pushing popcorn into your eyes. But it seems an odd tool to use to realise a world that was so carefully established over hours and hours of the most brilliant and breathtaking visuals in cinema, a world to which millions of people eagerly wanted to return, and to which we might have found it easier to return had it been filmed in the same way as the gorgeous Middle Earth we had grown to love. It’s principally the jarring effect of the visual gap between Middle Earth as so lushly realised in Rings and the sudden transformation of that mythical storybook place into something different (harsher, clearer, less fantastic and more real) that I found problematic in the use of 48fps in An Unexpected Journey.

There’s also a troubling lack of continuity in the geography of Middle Earth this time out – where Rings flowed seamlessly from marsh to forest to lowlands to mountains in a way that made instinctive, gut-level sense, you feel in The Hobbit as if you’re pinging about all over the map – one minute the company are in bare, grassy uplands (similar to the locations used for Rohan in The Two Towers), the next, we’ve fallen down a surprise rabbit hole into the ethereal wooded valley of Rivendell, with its waterfalls and mists. It’s a jolt, tonally. Perhaps this sounds a bit pedantic – it’s not the sort of thing the formerly reviled genre of fantasy used to pay much attention to getting right – but the care taken with these kinds of details in the Rings trilogy was a big part of the incredible suspension of disbelief achieved by those films, and part of the reason they were so much better than any fantasy filmmaking that had come before them.

All of this would be forgivable if we were so caught up in the story that we didn’t have time to sweat the possibly petty stuff. But I have to say my heart sank at the sight of a bird-poo streaked Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) racing through Mirkwood in a cart pulled by rabbits, to tend to an ailing hedgehog with a magic crystal, and at dwarfish lines threatening to shove weapons up a dragon’s “jacksie” or wondering at an elvish meal “have they got any chips?” – at everything, really, that seemed to have wandered in from Terry Pratchett books, which do such a great job of sending up the sort of thing that adaptations of Tolkien do have to take a bit seriously if they’re going to work.

The Rings scripts seemed to understand this, trimming back the more potentially risible Hobbit antics (Frodo getting a bit boozy and singing a version of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ in a pub, for instance) and excising the infamous Tom Bombadil (an enigmatic singing fellow based on a Dutch doll that belonged to professor Tolkien’s eldest son). An Unexpected Journey merrily succumbs to  this type of wackiness, often adding it where it wasn’t there in the first place. At the same time, there are attempts to impose a more serious tone on the big picture, creating a beast straining for both seriousness and levity in greater measures than its source, and ending up as a bit of a push-me, pull-you.

That all said, there are moments where tone is absolutely nailed, judicious cuts are made and details embellished to great effect. The ‘Riddles In The Dark’ chapter adds fun visual detail of Gollum despatching a young goblin that is only hinted at in the novel, while cutting some of the riddles exchanged by Gollum and Bilbo, and is all the better cinematically for both decisions. This scene comes alive, and really gives you hope that there might be some pretty great stuff coming down the tracks in parts two and three. Other scenes, such as the destruction of Erebor by the dragon Smaug, were probably spectacular, although I was spending so much time looking at the 48fps technique it was difficult to focus the mind on what had actually been filmed. Doubtless there’s an argument that this is a failing on the part of the unaccustomed viewer.

The mission statement for this film appears to be a line given to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) near the start of the film: “all good stories deserve embellishment.” An Unexpected Journey sadly undermines this claim. Personally, I came out of The Fellowship Of The Ring breathlessly eager to see the next film, and had to make do with seeing it eight times over while I waited. I’ll be approaching the next Hobbit instalment with regrettable wariness.