There was a time a few years ago when it wouldn’t be Christmas without a Peter Jackson trip to Middle Earth. His legendary Lord of the Rings trilogy was an amazing showcase for new technologies, little known actors, New Zealand landscapes and special effects along with brilliant creative solutions to the problem of how to bring Tolkien’s fantastical land to life. It was with these past films in mind that I anticipated falling in love with the first installment of The Hobbit. Like most people who have read the book I was surprised to hear that Jackson had decided to spread the story over 3 films when it is such a slim volume. This first film An Unexpected Journey comes in at a bum numbing 2 hrs. 45 minutes (akin to the special extra length versions of LOTR which other fans will certainly have in a boxset at home). Set 60 years before LOTR it tells the tale of a younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who goes on his first adventure with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a group of renegade dwarves out to reclaim their heritage from a gold hungry dragon.
Filmed in 48 frames per second (progressive cutting edge technology which is supposed to give a more lifelike experience) and in 3D it is an interesting new adventure for the viewer. Imagine that all of your favourite Middle Earth characters have stumbled upon the set of Emmerdale and you will have an idea of what it looks like; yes it looks like a feature length soap opera. For this reviewer the look of this film was so jarring that it made it very difficult to really get into the story, suspend my disbelief or feel engaged by the characters. There were no wow moments and no intake of breath except in terms of the repeated wincing when things just looked weird and there were a couple of scenes when I felt a bit nauseous.
Whenever the filming was done in low light, shadow, moonlight or other diffuse lighting it was magical to watch and for me looked like a traditional film (which is how I want my films to look). Every scene with harsher lighting or direct sunlight looked brash and just too “TV”. There were times when the glorious NZ landscape in bright sunshine resembled the Teletubbies set which was such a shame.
One advantage of this way of filming is that the fantasy creatures looked as real as the actors and the giant eagles were a joy to behold. When Gollum (Andy Serkis) appears in the last 30 minutes you are grateful for this familiar face which is not affected by the new filming format. His scenes with Bilbo are full of pathos and humour and you at last remember where you are supposed to be.
The actors do a great job with a somewhat limited script and the film score is wonderful. There is no arguing with the quality of the costumes, make up and sets and all the hard work that has gone into this film. However, I felt let down and certainly not excited at the prospect of seeing the next 2 films at the cinema; why bother when they would look just the same on my TV? One day maybe all films will look like this and the cinema experience will become extinct as a form of entertainment, hopefully I won’t be around to see that (or at least be too senile to care).
Read my review of the OST here.