With: Martin Freeman, Ken Stott, Ian McKellen
Runtime: 169 minutes
IT would not be a voyage into the realm of Peter Jackson's Tolkien fascination without a siege, and this one was a doozy. On and on the lines stretched, warriors frantically laying in supplies for the trials ahead. One quest to rule them all. Yes, the queue for drinks and food before the press show for the near-three-hour The Hobbit was quite the sight.
Lest there be any doubt, 169 minutes is less a reasonable running time and more the beginnings of a hostage situation. But is it worth it to see this, the beginning of a new trilogy to replace the Oscars-winning The Lord Of The Rings saga? Only if you are in possession of much patience, a high tolerance for fantasy fiction blether, and a forgiving bladder.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does, eventually, end up in a place worth reaching; there are some remarkable sights along the way and a thrilling new encounter with the precious Gollum. But as cinematic jaunts go, this is like walking from Cumbernauld to China with a wardrobe full of Orcs on your back.
The first hurdle Jackson throws in the path of the audience is the look of the film. It is shot in 3D at 48 frames per second, double the normal rate. The result is a picture that has none of the oppressive gloominess usually associated with 3D. Indeed, Jackson's film is so bright, clear and sun-dappled that in the opening Shire scenes one half expects Julie Andrews to run up a hill and declare the place positively hoaching with the sound of music.
It is a sharp contrast with the magnificently brooding Lord Of The Rings, and one that takes a lot of getting used to. As Jackson sets up his story stall there is plenty of time to adjust your eyes and expectations. It is 60 years before The Lord Of The Rings, and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is snug as a bug in his hole in the ground. Then along comes a wizard by the name of Gandalf (Ian McKellen back on duty) offering adventure. Bilbo gives this Middle-earth door-to-door salesman short shrift, but Gandalf the Grey is not so easily dissuaded. Like it or not, Bilbo is about to be drawn into a scheme to reclaim a lost dwarf kingdom that fell to a dragon called Smaug many moons ago.
Thrilled yet? Jackson is in no hurry to get the tale going, being content to set out his stall of visuals and introduce the band of 13 dwarves accompanying Bilbo and Gandalf. Several (the most notable played by Ken Stott) turn out to be Scots, and one is from Northern Ireland (James Nesbitt). All, to a man, are plucky.
Once the road trip starts, Jackson settles into a steady groove – too steady a groove. The rhythm and steps are as ordered and predictable as a ballroom dance. One, two, face a moment of peril. Three, four, pause for some comedy asides from Freeman. Five, six, wheel on the warrior Orcs for some old-fashioned frights. Seven, eight, squint into the horizon and have a good old chat about the dangers to come. Repeat again, and again.
Freeman, though, makes a very acceptable Baggins. He is an actor who is easy on the eye and ear in everything he is in, but he has found his groove with Bilbo, the cowardly lion who might like to roar as long as it wouldn't wake the neighbours. As for the rest of the cast, good luck spotting them beneath the mountains of prosthetics, hair and layers of clothing.
So the story plods on, up hill, down dale, across mountain and through woods. Every scene has a wow factor, but cinema-goers cannot live by remarkable sights alone. Frankly, when you've seen one Goblin kingdom, etc...
But then something astonishing occurs – a scene featuring our old friend Gollum that single-handedly rescues the picture. Here is the tale of how Bilbo first met Gollum, and how the fabled ring was acquired. Andy Serkis (back as Gollum) and Freeman stage such a fine, deliciously creepy battle of wits it is almost enough to make a body forget it has been sitting so long it is in danger of developing pressure sores.
That is the thing about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. By the end, unexpectedly, you are in the mood to know more. It is strictly a set-up picture, there to introduce characters and story, but in doing so it is nowhere near as gripping as the first Lord Of The Rings.
Jackson's Rings trilogy was Tolkien for people who find JRR the literary equivalent of waterboarding. Against expectations, it was genuinely thrilling, relevant (good versus evil, the fight of our time) and spectacular. So far, The Hobbit only ticks the spectacular box. Better, hopefully, is yet to come.