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Thursday 27 July 2017

Hobbit goes on a long but fun journey

Paul Whitington

film of the week

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12A, general release, 166 minutes)

Director: Peter Jackson Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Weaving, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis

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Hobbit goes on a long but fun journey

Published in 1937, The Hobbit was scholar and philologist JRR Tolkien's first foray into his imagined kingdom of Middle-earth, and the humble font from which the sprawling epic Lord of the Rings sprung. Humble it might be, but it's a charming children's story and arguably a better book than the doorstopper it spawned.

Crucially, it is brief, a hop, skip and jump through the landscape that will later bog down Frodo and his enemies, but somehow Peter Jackson and his producers have managed to spin The Hobbit out into three consecutive films.

This two-and-three-quarter-hour saga will be followed next Christmas by The Desolation of Smaug, and in the summer of 2014 by There and Back Again. Whose fault this was I cannot say: the romantic in me likes to imagine that Tolkien-loving Jackson wanted time and space to do justice to the charms of the novel.

More likely, the number crunchers at New Line and Warners cast a greedy eye over the $3billion or so grossed by the Lord of the Rings trilogy and thought 'we'll have some of that'. And no doubt they will, because although way too long, this first episode is most impressively put together.

Brilliant casting, too, to choose Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins, Frodo's twinkly-eyed uncle who, 60 years before the opening of Lord of the Rings, embarks on an extraordinary adventure.

He does so reluctantly at first, for he's a comfort-loving, stay-at-home bachelor until he's paid a visit by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, slipping back into the role like a foot into a well-worn slipper).

In the wizard's train come 13 dwarves, led by the imperious warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and bound for the distant Lonely Mountain, their ancient, cavernous fortress that was attacked and claimed a generation before by a dragon called Smaug. The dwarves need a burglar to help them sneak up on Smaug, and Gandalf has convinced them Bilbo is just the chap.

He's nothing of the sort, of course, but Gandalf has wise reasons for choosing him, and when they set out on their perilous journey Bilbo's resourcefulness surprises even himself.

The Hobbit was shot in the pioneering HFR, or High Frame Rate, which runs at 48 rather than the traditional 24 frames a second.

This supposedly gives much higher definition and a smoother sense of movement and so, overall, it does.

I saw it in Cineworld's IMAX theatre, and the 3D effects are so convincing that when a character looms suddenly into frame you think the person in front of you has stood up.

Impressive stuff, though I must say I noticed focus problems here and there, but, as ever, Jackson uses a deft blend of live action and CGI to push his story forward.

That story, though, really feels pulled thin at times, and there's a lifelessness to the drama that the fine performances mainly fail to punctuate.

The story only really comes to life in an electrifying scene when Bilbo first encounters Gollum (the brilliant Andy Serkis) and that blessed ring.

Suddenly, a heavy script sparkles with life and wit, and gives us a glimpse of how good The Hobbit might have been if it had been made as a single film.

Instead we have this impressive, accomplished but oddly dull and overbearing behemoth.

And brace yourselves folks, because this is only the start of it.

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