NOTE: this review tackles the 2D, 24fps version.
Echoes of a collective groan emanated from the deepest, darkest bowels of the Internet when it was announced that Peter Jackson’s latest tackling of Tolkien literature would be split into three (yes, three) separate films. Rightly or wrongly jeered, there are always a number of Jackson certainties a film of such magnitude box ticks: grandiose spectacle, jaw-dropping CGI and masses of indulgence. The Hobbit – all 169 minutes of it – bodes well in terms of the first two, but in typical Jackson fashion, is slightly bogged with sentimentality in the cutting room. But that’s not to say this first instalment isn’t a good one, though.
As young Bilbo is introduced (Martin Freeman) in the quaint vibrancy of The Shire, aesthetically it feels as viable and convincing as the multi-Oscar winning excellence of The Lord of the Rings. New characters are introduced as fluently as old ones are reacquainted, notably the divine Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, as both premise and context are established, the following set up is more akin to The Fellowship of the Ring, as it practically retraces its steps. This comparison can be detected throughout, and whilst it may seem a mild hindrance, it doesn’t necessarily stifle the film.
Visually the entire film is a marvel. Wonderfully conceived and executed, it’s sure to be a strong contender for Oscars in technical achievements, not simply due to the breathtaking CGI for Andy Serkis’ Gollum, which is noticeably superior to Weta’s efforts a decade previous, but also for its conscientious strive to dazzle and amaze, much like LotR did. The journey that Bilbo, Gandalf and band of dwarves embark on is fundamentally a series of escapades that differ from whimsy adventure to life-threatening peril, yet are linked by stunning set pieces and special effects that make these moments all the more exceptional.
Once the film’s overarching expedition does kick in, audiences are whisked into Middle-Earth to bear witness to misadventures that literally encumber their progress. However, it’s the beginning of the film that opens laboriously, taking its sweet time to get things going. The pace is noticeably gradual and will no doubt frustrate some, but can be forgiven because the entirety doesn’t drag as one might imagine. Occasional scenes see it plod, but Martin Freeman forges a fresh take on Bilbo Baggins that’s quintessentially British that proves hugely charming in both quips and subtlety of facial expression. Similarly, Sir Ian McKellen is on top form as Gandalf, too, as such established characters stand out against the largely indistinct band of dwarves (including James Nesbitt) that form the backbone of the travelling party.
The Hobbit is more whimsy, accessible and light-hearted than some of the darker and frankly more terrifying aspects of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but still crams so much in and exudes an epic severity the impending excursion is about to offer, and does so in gorgeous style with unrivaled special effects. In honesty, with two further films to come, it does feel a tad stretched for a single 320-pager, but possesses more than enough good to quash the bad; Freeman begins his quest to Lonely Mountain on a positively delightful note.
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