The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Year: 2012
Production Co: Wingnut Films
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Peter Jackson/Fran Walsh
Writer: Peter Jackson/Fran Walsh/Phillipa Boyens/Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Huog Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Barry Humphries, Benedict Cumberbatch

Peter Jackson bought about the last great seismic change with the Lord of the Rings saga, showing how the fantastical genres that had languished for so long could be bought to life with CGI instead of just showcasing what computers could do, blending Shakespearian performances and deep emotional themes and walking off with the crown of Hollywood and a slew of Oscars as well.

What followed was a whole cinematic movement of increasingly cheap cash-ins of varying quality – we hadn't seen so many huge CGI armies clash on the battlefields since Birth of a Nation. In fact, The Lord of the Rings legacy is so powerful it's constantly sideswiping itself – if you watch the films today on DVD you realise we've seen the same thing so many times since that they haven't aged well.

Say what you like about the plot of both the Rings and Hobbit books, they are really about bunches of characters walking as many detractors have said. There's a destination and perils aplenty along the way, but viewed objectively (and no doubt constrained by the plot of the book), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn't even try to distance its story from the Lord of the Rings films, from the opening sequences in The Shire and the second-act visit to the Elf kingdom Elrond to the final frames of the travellers watching over their distant prize from a spectacular peak.

But the acid test – which can also be applied to the two hour 50 minute running time – is whether you enjoy yourself. And if you're a fan of any comic book, sci-fi-fantasy or horror movie of the last three decades, you'll barely even realise until it's over just how little about The Hobbit is really original.

Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is writing his memoirs to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), telling him the story of how he came across the fabled Ring, and it's a tale far deeper and more thrilling that Bilbo has let on.

After the title card An Unexpected Journey (which, let's be honest, is exactly what Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was), we're transported back to Bilbo as a much younger hobbit (Martin Freeman), enjoying his quiet life at Bag End until Gandalf (Ian McKellen) arrives to tell him he's to accompany the wizard and a company of dwarves on a quest.

None the wiser about the journey when the band of dwarves – absent any social graces – descend and eat him out of house and home, Bilbo agrees to the journey at the last minute. It's the film's weakest moment, seeming so out character for him to do so aside from a throwaway comment by Gandalf that inexplicably changes him mind.

Creatures, dangers and adventures both new and old await the band as they make their way toward the mountain kingdom the dwarves were driven out of. Their mission is to fight and kill the dragon Smaug, who attacked and destroyed the city to reach the gold underneath in the film's thrilling opening. As they travel they're pursued by the white goblin king, a fearsome and scary beast with his giant wolf-riding minions, and there was a rousing, appreciative cheer when Gollum came hissing out of the darkness during the press screening.

Jackson employs much of the same techniques he used to thrust you right into the action of the Rings films and King Kong . Sometimes the camera wheels and soars throughout enormous caverns and forests, sometimes it zooms vertiginously around a tiny area such as when the dwarves are trying to fight off three hulking goblins. Together with cinema-rattling sound design, the scope is awesome. To see just how Jackson knows how to fill up a screen (and speakers), watch for the storm giants – entire mountain rock faces that come to life to battle in a driving rain.

The new feature already talked about at length is the 48 frame per second film speed. At first the effect is disconcerting, the total absence of grain and film artefacts making it look like you're literally there (in a strange way that makes something feel wrong).

The picture is astonishingly clear, and sequences of movement make it look like you're watching extremely high definition video tat somehow looks 'cheaper' than film. Now 3D doesn't look like going away, 48fps might become the new battleground between studio marketing and fan backlash, purists wishing for the machined warmth of film that feels completely absent in The Hobbit.

But as always, movies will never fall on their swords because of the effects, 3D or the frame rate, but the story and the characters. At first (and after looking at the poster), it looks like it'll be exhausting trying to keep up with everyone if you're not a rampant Tolkein fan, but Jackson, Boyens, Walsh and Del Toro's script gets the balance right enough to make it easy to stay with it.

It's possible the agonies of a protracted period of development hell has gone into the lifeblood of the movie on screen, because Del Toro's three years of pre-production intending to direct, a studio freezing the whole thing as it worked its way out of bankruptcy and New Zealand unions nearly throwing the whole production out of the country comprised a journey every bit as epic as Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves' travels.

And with such a similar plot to the original films (so far) it's tempting to think the battles, action sequences, jaw-dropping landscapes and eye popping technical artistry distract you from the similarities, or maybe Lord of the Rings is so beloved we all just want to see it again done even better.

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