The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Aidan Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Connolly, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, James Nesbitt 12A cert, general release, 166 min
This bloated, overlong Hollywood product drains most of the life and good will out of a perfectly formed children’s fantasy, writes Donald Clarke
We shouldn’t come over too apocalyptic. But a full immersion in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Waste of Time – all two hours and 49 minutes of it – offers unhappy insights as to what’s gone wrong with the movie industry.
Much has been made of the apparent cynicism inherent in the decision to convert a relatively slim, beautifully balanced children’s book into three enormously long motion pictures. Viewing the bloated, pompous first part, it’s hard to argue with those suspicions. But just as destructive is the largely sincere conviction – Jackson is a Tolkien enthusiast, after all – that such adaptations should now be directed at the committed fan (and to Mordor with the casual viewer). The last franchise picture to arrive so laden with boring cinematic footnotes and thematic asides was George Lucas’s ill-remembered
The Phantom Menace. Jackson might like to consider what that film did for its maker’s reputation.
Following a lengthy (assume, throughout the rest of this review, that this adjective sits before every noun) prologue detailing the dragon Smaug’s assault on the Kingdom of Erebor, the older Bilbo Baggins (still Ian Holm) tells brave Frodo (still Elijah Wood) the full details of his efforts to slay that beast. Amid a cloud of smoke, we drift back 60 years and find Bilbo looking younger, livelier and a great deal more like Tim from The Office.
Martin Freeman doesn’t much resemble Holm, but his irresistible ordinariness is perfect for the unremarkable Hobbit who never much fancied becoming a hero. That status is thrust upon him when Ian McKellen’s grumpy Gandalf arrives unexpectedly to announce that a large party of dwarfs is about to descend for ale and vittles.
The succeeding scenes of revelry – a hugely overextended fantasy version of Come Dine With Me – exemplifies much of what is wrong with An Unexpected Journey. Little plot is forwarded. Many groaningly uncomfortable jokes are made. Bad songs are sung. Even Tolkien purists applauded Jackson’s decision to slice the Rampling Syd Rumpo numbers from The Lord of the Rings. With these prequels, Jackson can’t afford to shed so much as a second of filler.
And, of course, if you’re viewing at a “selected venue”, the party and everything else is rendered in eye-watering 48-frames-per-second 3D Imax. It’s probably a little too early to pass definitive judgment upon the much-discussed high-frame resolution. Suffice to say the scalpel-sharp image does appear to show up the artificiality of the sets, make-up, props and special effects. Film-makers may, however, learn to adapt.
When the dishes are tidied away, Bilbo and his band of largely dwarfish chums light out for the grim territories. Director Kevin Smith has pointed out that there was a little too much walking in The Lord of the Rings. Such is the pace of the prequel that the team may as well be crawling through the dirt on their hairy bellies.
Not since Granada’s TV production of Brideshead Revisited has an adaptation clung so closely to every comma, full stop and colon of the source material. The various bolted-on flashbacks and subtextual sideshows only serve to slow the already leaden pace down to almost complete stasis.
There are some wonderful moments. Scottish and Northern Irish viewers with decent senses of humour will enjoy the scene during which the dwarfs – a disproportionate number of whom hail from those parts – look horrified at salad vegetables and demand meat and “chips”. The painfully delayed appearance of Gollum is offset by a chilling turn from Andy Serkis that lives up to everything he achieved in the Lord of the Rings pictures.
But one is ultimately left slightly appalled at the way a gorgeous little book has been misused in the names of commerce and fanaticism. There are the makings of one neat, classically structured film in The Hobbit. In his (often well-intended) attempt to produce a definitive, enhanced-strength version of that text, Jackson has stripped away much of the fun, a great deal of the energy and most of the humour.
Oh well. There’s only another seven hours to go.