An Unexpected Pleasure

I’ve been holding off seeing The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey because the thought of sitting in a cinema for three hours hasn’t seemed that pleasurable to me. Plus, I wanted to make sure that I experienced the film at 48 frames per-second, as Director Peter Jackson has intended it to be shown. So tonight I girded-my-loins and stocked-up on pop corn, paid for a ticket and dug out my 3D glasses.

The result? Well my first impression of the 48fps is that is makes the screen action look like a television performance. The story isn’t helped by such a prolonged first part of the film, being set indoors and mainly consisting of character introductions and dialogue. In order to do this the lighting is pronounced and general. This gives the staging, on occasions, the feel of a television play. If The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey was a tele-movie special, then it wouldn’t look out of place among many other TV specials that get spun-off from mainstream films. The initial performances are marked out in very broad, even hammy, strokes.

And yet, as the film progresses, this initial underplaying of the tone of the film pays off. The action sequences are astonishing. They are detailed and quick, while relying on full-body shots that once would have needed extensive and multiple cut-aways to convince an audience. Likewise, the camera movements are stunning. We are used to these sweeping wire and aerial shots from Peter Jackson, but they really come into their own when the detail is uniform across the screen – and boy, does Peter Jackson cram in the detail.

Because there is more visual depth the 3D rendering is much better than in earlier films using similar techniques. After a while it is easy to forget the 3D tricks, and the subconscious processing of a more kinesthetic camera flow takes over. Some 3D films feel like flat 2D glass plates layered on top of each other. This feels like movement that draws you to the characters, rather than the process of film making itself. In the final sequences of the film, the colour grading and the balance of the lighting is more muted and pastel, and this gives the overall image a more human touch, and brings out the extended and enlarged narrative potential of this leap forward in movie production techniques. By the end of the film I was left wanting to see more movies made this way.

I would have cut some of the earlier sequences with cameos from Peter Holm and Elijah Wood, playing the older Bilbo and the younger Frodo. These where superfluous and merely gave an unnecessary nod to the previous films. The performances from the main characters, however, really helped to force the action through. It’s interesting that the characters who stand out are Martin Freeman, James Nesbit, Ken Stott and Richard Armitage, who are all predominantly stage and television actors. Likewise Sylvester McCoy and Barry Humphries eat up the screen in their respective slightly weird roles. It seems the crossover between cinema and television performances has found it’s crucial link in the extended shots and action of this movie.

This isn’t a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good fun. It lacks the portentousness of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and revels in its own sheer ability to tell a story using images, sound and people running around. This is story telling as one event after another. What on first viewing might be it’s weakness, the lack of an overarching narrative, becomes instead it’s strength, as events and sequences unfold in the way that the pages of a good story book should. One page at a time, and never letting go.

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