Itís difficult to recall now, but there was a time back in 2001 when it was far from certain that Peter Jackson could deliver everything his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings promised. A broadly faithful reading of Tolkienís text matched with sumptuous visuals and a dynamism that could convert even the most fantasy-averse punter? Impossible! That he proved all the naysayers wrong has been largely overlooked since he drowned in the tsunami of awards that were subsequently thrown in his direction. Since then, he has taken a few knocks for his (some would say) overly reverential remake of King Kong and flawed adaptation of The Lovely Bones, so there was more than a little deja vu in the run up to the release of this first chapter of what is now a trilogy based on The Hobbit. Expectations were sky high: could he deliver the goods again?
The answer is yes - with a few minor caveats. Jackson does lay himself open to the charge of over-inflating a rather short - if eventful - childrenís story in to an epic of near pompous proportions, but no-one could accuse him of shortchanging the audience. After a brief prologue with Ian Holm reprising his role as the elder Bilbo preparing for his eleventy-first birthday, the story rewinds sixty years earlier to the first meeting between young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen slipping seamlessly back under the pointy hat). The halfling finds himself, in short order, eaten out of house and home by a band of dwarves, before heading off with said party on a quest to reclaim their old kingdom of Erebor, which was annexed by a dragon called Smaug many years earlier. Bilbo finds himself tested in ways he had never imagined - especially when he encounters a creature called Gollum.
Jackson (along with fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and original director Guillermo del Toro) attempts a difficult balancing act by blending The Hobbit with various appendices and other assorted material in an effort to create a more substantial prequel to The Lord of the Rings that is its equal in dramatic weight and stature, while sticking to the same plot. He doesnít entirely succeed in this, but he comes close. The lighter, more whimsical tone of the original book does finds its way to the screen - early on the gentle humour is noticeably to the forefront of the story, allowing each of the thirteen dwarves to establish a little individuality. This is counterbalanced by more portentous drama intended to lay the groundwork for the return of Sauron; hence the reappearance of Rings alumni like Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). The extra content inevitably slows the narrative down, but thereís plenty of onscreen action to try and disguise the fact: extended chases and battles through Moria, plus an enjoyable interlude with another wizard, Radagast the Brown (a very welcome Sylvester McCoy), who drives around on a rabbit-pulled sleigh as if he were Santaís grumpy Easter cousin.
There was no need for The Hobbit to be as Ďdarkí as its sequel, but even after taking into account the change in emphasis, the end result still feels inferior. What it lacks is the compelling sense of urgency and purpose that drove the earlier films. Although the dwarvish mission is clearly laid out, there is no escaping the fact that much of the onscreen action feels artificially engineered to extend and raise the pulse of the slender story. It is, in a small way, a backwards step by Jackson - the film feels rougher, less polished, less disciplined than its predecessors.
Despite that, An Unexpected Journey is a highly entertaining return trip to Middle-earth, even if the law of diminishing returns is invoked - it's very much business as usual. The director delivers action and spectacle just as well as he ever did, particularly in the underground sequences and those featuring giant foes (not once but twice). Leading a strong cast, Martin Freeman is excellent as Bilbo, perfectly capturing the hobbit whose love of homeís creature comforts threatens to obscure the world outside his front door, while Gollumís return to the big screen is simply flawless. The ending is a little anti-climactic - the journey seems to have barely begun - but it's a fun ride all the same.
It would be remiss not to discuss the much ballyhooed 48 frames per second presentation, which really comes down to personal taste. Initially it is a shock to the system; thereís a strange juddery feel to the camerawork early on, but one does eventually get accustomed to it, and thereís little doubt it improves the visual quality of the 3D. In some ways it felt like one of those live theatre broadcasts that cinemas now show, where the cameras allow you to get up close and personal to the actors and sets instead of being stuck near the back, straining to see the action. In fact, itís so vivid it almost feels like youíre watching the filming as it takes place. Is that a good thing? Iím not sure; I think I prefer the illusion of cinema, not its reality. Doubtless the technology and filming techniques will improve as time goes on, if it is indeed here to stay. Perhaps Peter Jacksonís kinetic visual style wasnít the best showcase for the new technology - a case of too much too soon. Might Paul Thomas Andersonís The Master or even Bela Tarrís The Turin Horse, with their emphasis on people and faces, have been a better testing ground? Iím sure both directors would wholeheartedly disagree.
Itís difficult to recall now, but there was a time back in 2001 when it was far from certain that Pe...