Nine years after bringing his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy to a triumphant Oscar-winning close, Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth for another three-part venture into the fantasy world created by J.R.R. Tolkein, but as soon as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins it’s immediately clear that some questionable decisions on his part have turned this quest awry.
Take the decision to spin Tolkein’s slender children’s book into three instalments. Given LOTR’s $3billion worldwide gross, another Tolkein trilogy makes perfect financial sense, but in storytelling terms it’s far harder to justify.
Set 60 years before LOTR, The Hobbit recounts the adventures of timid, home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) after the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) drafts him into a company of dwarves who are setting forth to reclaim their lost kingdom. Unfortunately, Jackson spends so much time introducing the band of 13 dwarves that it takes the film the best part of an hour to get beyond Bilbo’s front door.
When the dwarves turn up mob-handed at the hobbit’s cosy home in the Shire, kicking off a night of boisterous revelry, the laboured jests and jollity seem to go on forever. And the combination of dwarves, forced humour and familiar faces off the telly turn the occasion into bad panto.
Jackson’s other questionable decision – to shoot the film in High Frame Rate 3D – only makes matters worse. With the action unfolding at 48 frames per second (instead of the usual 24), the higher resolution makes every detail of the sets and costumes stand out, but the overly slick screen image this produces makes the film look like daytime television. In a misguided attempt at greater realism, the fantasy simply looks fake.
Things improve when the journey finally gets underway, pitching Bilbo into perilous encounters with trolls, goblins, orcs and, most earth-shatteringly of all, the slimy treacherous Gollum. And there is much that is good about the film. Freeman is perfectly cast as the diffident Bilbo; McKellen once more gives Gandalf a wry, whimsical twinkle; and Andy Serkis performs motion-capture marvels as Gollum. Indeed, the scene in which Bilbo first encounters the cave-dwelling Gollum and bests him in a duel of riddles is the film’s highlight.
But at 170 minutes, The Hobbit contains so much unnecessary padding – some of it derived from Tolkein’s appendices to his Lord of the Rings books – that the patience of all but the most devoted of Middle-earthers will be sorely tested.
In cinemas from Thursday 13th December.