There is a moment approximately twenty-eight hours in to The Hobbit's forty-hour running time where the fellowship of dwarves, hobbit and wizard we're accompanying find themselves in the midst of a smackdown between towering rock giants.
It is, arguably, utterly empty spectacle. It could have been cut from the film without issue, saving the budget millions and movie-going bladders a tense wait to find out whether they can last to the end without bursting. There are plenty of moments like this throughout The Hobbit; scenes the story could have easily done without. If shorter and sharper, this unexpected journey would have made it there and back again without needing another installment on each of our next two Christmasses.
|"On seeing the dwarves, the rock giant gave them a cheery wave..."|
BUT... ROCK GIANTS... HEADBUTTING EACH OTHER
A granite jaw explodes from a flinty fist. A figure the height of a mountain crashes down into the depths of a valley; all while our hapless adventurers are trapped on a fragile ledge right in the middle of the action.
I had a grin on my face at this point. It wasn't empty spectacle. It told us this was a world where forces beyond the ken of the little folk could do battle, heedless to the little folk caught in the middle. It told us this was a director who wasn't telling the story of Bilbo Baggins, it was a director telling a tale of Middle Earth; a place where mountains can not only move, they can also kick ass; a tale that will ultimately span six films and strive to be more than the sum of its parts.
|To outsiders, Rivendell was a picturesque idyll; insiders knew it hid a grim secret: an industrial fart joke factory|
The opening of the film features Frodo in the moments before he meets Gandalf at the beginning of 'The Fellowship of the Ring'. There are meetings that presage the rise of the necromancer, Sauron. Numerous lines, motifs and incidents echo Jackson's preceding trilogy. All of these may diminish the success of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a standalone film, but enhance its part in a greater tapestry.
Plus, like I said, rock giants. Headbutting each other.
Whether you find the spectacle shallow or deep, there is no denying it is spectacular. The cinematography is first-rate. Almost every shot stands as an artful still in its own right. Despite the running time, there are few sequences where the pace drags, though I'm sure anyone here for a simple tale of a hobbit would beg to differ. In fact, the pace struck me as more akin to a novel or TV mini-series than a film, where a set-up is paid off a dozen hours or two hundred pages later, rather than within ninety minutes. But make no mistake: the story isn't stretched thin to fill the running time, there's merely more story stuffed into all those extra minutes.
If you're happy to drink in more of Middle Earth, that's a good thing.
|The moment Thorin realised the cat could get down from the tree on its own...|
GRATUITOUS HERO SHOTS
Are there bad things here? Well, I saw the film in standard frame-rate 2D, so I can't comment on the pros and cons of high frame-rate 3D, but I can say I detected a knowing tone of weariness in Ian McKellen's pitch-perfect Gandalf when he exhorted his companions to 'run!' for the fifty-eighth time. There are a few too many gratuitous 'hero shots' of Richard Armitage's Thorin, which might look good as artful stills, but have much the same effect as someone repeatedly telling you they're awesome instead of letting you draw that conclusion for yourself. And, come the finale, it will absolutely make you ask again why The Lord of the Rings didn't end like this.
But they're minor nit-picks. 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is an exceptionally made film. Whether it's a good film rests on whether you agree with Peter Jackson's decision to create an epic series rather than a standalone movie. Regardless of that, I defy anyone to wrest their attention from the screen when Gollum slips back into view...