There is a sense of sledgehammers being used to crack nuts in the first part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. J.R.R. Tolkien’s short 1937 novel, a prequel to The Lord Of The Rings, has been turned into an enormous Wagnerian epic by Jackson and his collaborators.
For all the sound and fury, not a great deal actually happens in this initial episode. The personable home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins (very engagingly played by Martin Freeman) is prised out of his country retreat by Gandalf and the 13 Dwarves and signed up to accompany them on their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom of Erebor.
Much has been made of Jackson’s decision to shoot in groundbreaking 3D 48 frames-per-second. This is twice the traditional frame rate and gives uncannily sharp resolution to the filmmaking. The problem is that, at least in the initial sequences set in Bilbo’s home of Bag End (Middle Earth’s equivalent to the Home Counties), the effect is kitsch and alienating. Watching these super clear but super bland images, you yearn for the contrast and graininess in old fashioned 2D film.
As The Dwarves plunder Bilbo’s larder and Gandalf (Ian McKellen stroking a very long beard) tries to persuade him to join the mission - which isn’t very clearly explained - The Hobbit moves along with a complete lack of voltage.
The Dwarves are characterised vividly enough, there is one early fight sequence in which we see in flashback the Dwarf Lord Thorin (a growling Richard Armitage) fighting against the Orcs that have laid his family’s kingdom to waste but, overall, the pacing is torpid.
It’s only when Bilbo and co. come up against some hungry but dim-witted trolls with a taste for Dwarves’ flesh that the momentum begins to pick up.
Thankfully, Jackson’s flair for action sequences and bold and complex production design hasn’t deserted him. Huge, snarling dogs and a chase sequence involving a wizard played by Sylvester McCoy being pulled by a sledge of super-nimble rabbits add some bite to the storytelling. The Goblin King (Barry Humphries) is obese and repulsive. He presides over a hellish goblin kingdom that rekindles memories of Hieronymous Bosch paintings. Jackson throws in more and more swooping, swirling camera work.
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Familiar old faces - Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm among them - are seen fleetingly. However, one of the very best scenes in the film pits Bilbo against Gollum (Andy Serkis) in a game of riddles. In this scene, at least, the balance between menace, tension and humour is perfectly struck. This isn’t a film that builds to a natural conclusion.
With two more installments to come, we are only part of the way into the quest and the ending here is strangely abrupt. You’re not quite sure why the film has taken so long - close to three hours - to deliver relatively little in terms of plot development. There is a suspicion that the producers have cut a sandwich into three that could easily have been served up in two slices.
Even so, audiences are bound to eat it up and come back for more. Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations have almost a cult appeal among their devotees while newcomers looking for cinematic spectacle over the Christmas period won’t feel too badly short-changed either.
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