Somewhere among the grassy hills and green pastures of Wellington, some time not too many moons of Mordor ago, former play dough and fake blood SFX specialist Peter Jackson fell in love with the word “epic.” He spent many years and expended considerable hardship crafting a series of Tolkien adaptations that would tempt every critic the world over to use his beloved word to describe them. One by one each critic fell, the more desperate collapsing onto a sword of synonymous: massive this, monumental that; Herculean this, Brobdingnagian that.
When Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series concludes in two years time, totalling six features and too many fake beards to count, he will have overseen the most magnificent salute to the ancient art of walking ever committed to film. Like every LOTR movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the first of three cash cows set to clog up the industry’s beloved Boxing Day gravy train – is, at its worst, a reminder of the timelessness of Jerry Seinfeld’s gag about golf: that it’s just nice to be outside in a well landscaped area. At its best it is a staggeringly beautiful otherworldly head-trip, a bells and whistles blockbuster that realises cinema’s capacity to transport viewers to places that exist only in the imagination. And this time, at twice the frame rate.
Jackson’s decision to add “game changer” to his CV led him to shoot The Hobbit movies at 48 frames per second, twice the normal rate. The new format has copped a whacking from critics who have alternately described it as looking “too fake”, “too sharp” and “too high definition”, which may or may not be true.
The reality is few people can accurately call it. Critics who have grumbled about the new format are the same who viewed it in 3D, a format described with words such as “too blurry”, “too dark” and “too fuzzy”. Combine the two formats and you get a decent remedy for 3D’s woes, not enough to save it but enough to give it a shot in the arm: a nicer, crisper, brighter image more conducive to the splendorous New Zealand landscapes and sweet, sweet eye candy in store.
Martin Freeman cuts a fine Bilbo Baggins, the ultimate straight guy character around which (like his turn as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) a spectacular universe orbits. Stone giants, a riddle-off between Baggins and Gollum (again played by the world’s greatest “invisible” actor, Andy Serkis) and a battle involving flaming pine cones are highlights. It’s wonderful to be reminded how skilful Jackson is as a director of action sequences; patient zoom-ins, roaming pans and meditative wide lens shots are always in vogue over “fuck the frame” style cheap thrills.
It’s a shame, then, that pace and structural issues are what bog An Unexpected Journey down, impart a sense that the men and women behind the curtain are more concerned about bums on seats and regularity of release dates than telling the right story with the kind of right momentum. This is a by-product of a ridiculous rationale: that a book unequivocally the stuff of blockbuster material has been padded out rather than contained.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would have flowed better as a two-parter, but atmospheric proficiency keeps it afloat. Jackson is faithful to the vision he has spent considerable effort articulating, which is to say customers will get what they paid for and leave with a particular word on the tip of their tongues. Having trekked these beautiful mountains before, and over such a substantial running time, it is tempting to under-appreciate the achievement: the broad strokes of Jackson’s vision matched with his penchant for small and seductive details.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey's Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2012.