Review: The Hobbit (12A)

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FILM
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
(12A) 169mins
★★★★★

IN A NUTSHELL
Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth is an astonishing feat, peppered with joyous performances and brimming with imagination.

REVIEW
As I left the preview screening in Holborn, a pigeon swooped low over my head. It was a grey London pigeon set against a grey London sky.

The pigeon wasn't particularly giant or notably tiny, it bore no dwarves upon its back and it failed to offer any words of illumination regarding my lineage or my impending sacrifice.

B-o-r-i-n-g. I, like Bilbo Baggins, am a fussy little Englishman with a tidy life and no hankering for adventure. Except when there's an adventure to be had and someone else might be having it in my stead...

I yearned to be back in Middle Earth, clashing swords with orcs and riding eagles and generally heading off in that direction to face an unknown peril, preferably learning a little bit about myself on the way.

I am new to this place - this lush cluster of kingdoms - having never sunk my hairy and bulbous Hobbit toes into the moss of Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Hence I have the zealousness of the convert. Whatever. This film is astounding, a riveting treat, full of breathless wonders.

Turn a deaf, possibly large lobed, ear to the doom-mongers who talk of creative bloat and how this first part of the trilogy merely arrives at chapter six of the slight book.

I went in prepared to heed their advice, figuring that toilet breaks along the 2 hour 49 minute length would be plentiful. But there wasn't a moment to spare.
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Yes, it is long but this is a classic tale steeped in the mythology of story-telling itself. People go on a long journey to face a big challenge and along the way distract themselves with personal stories and parables and myths that entertain or inform.

To the detail. Bilbo Baggins casts his mind back to his younger days when he left the Shires to join Galdalf and 13 dwarves on a quest to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor, now inhabited by a grumpy dragon.

Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), their journey - the first part at least - takes them through treacherous lands swarming with goblins, orcs, trolls and wargs. (In this world, everything sounds like you're trying to give directions to Stevenage with a mouthful of conkers.)

And, for those who cannot thrive without the parsimonious stimulation of linear story-telling, there is so much more to enjoy beyond the fireside chat. Open those peepers and scan the horizons for lush landscapes, a match for anything on Pandora and, in many cases, genuine bits of New Zealand. Or relish the sheer all-engulfing craftsmanship of the film-making.

Admire the performances too. Behind latex and CGI, the dwarves tend to become an amorphous mass (Ken Stott and James Nesbitt excepted) but, despite the dry "Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror" intoning, there are subtleties to enjoy.

Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo Baggins. He begins the film in a dressing gown which is an reminder of his other put-upon, bristling hero - Arthur Dent in The Hitch-Hikers' Guide To The Galaxy - and his beautifully modulated performance, switching between drama and wry comedy - survives the sensual overload of The Hobbit's epic sweep.

Sir Ian McKellen, as Gandalf, may spend the film spouting proverbs and twee schoolmasterly homilies but he does so with such panache and class. If Werther's Originals could speak, they would sound like our favourite East End pub owner.

And, in the most spell-binding sequence of the film, Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum, the bony, conflicted stoor hobbit who challenges Bilbo with life-or-death riddle games. Witnessing how Serkis can be so part of Gollum and so separate is a mesmeric experience.

You will no doubt hear of the higher rate 48 frames per second (compared to the usual 24) which gives a sense of televisual hyper-reality and, to some, proves a distraction. I found the sharpness an adequate counter-balance to the general frustrating dullness afforded by 3D specs.

But, all these things are forgotten to be replaced by the immersive vision of director Peter Jackson who commands this vast terrain with breath-taking sweeping shots. He can choreograph seething, warring masses and yet still pick out tiny dots of comedy and humanity.

In the face of the snarling anti-hype, the Unexpected Journey turns out to be an unexpected joy.