The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Cumberbatchweb review

It’s been rather a Hobbit themed 3 weeks for Cumberbatchweb. I am just back from a three week holiday to New Zealand where I saw Hobbit and Lord of the Rings filming sites (including the splendid Hobbiton), attended The One Ring premiere party where I met Sir Peter Jackson (a more down to earth man you could not find), Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis and a variety of dwarves and soaked in the atmosphere on the red carpet at the world premiere of The Hobbit in Wellington where I met Martin Freeman and about 8 of the dwarves. And this three week Hobbit extravaganza ended on Wednesday with my finally seeing the film at the London premiere courtesy of The Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund which made some tickets available to the public.

It’s a real rarity for the public to be able to attend a premiere as these are usually reserved for celebs only and it was enormously good fun walking the green carpet down the tree lined, misty “Hobbiton” set up in Leicester Square for the occasion. We walked the carpet along with Mcfly and nearly knocked over one of the dwarves – Graham McTavish. Inside the cinema we were treated to Hobbit goodie bags containing a lovely brochure, Hobbit 3d glasses, water & green, yellow & brown Hobbit m&ms. We were even given a snack box of food courtesy of Air New Zealand (granted the food in question tasted a few days old but hey it’s the thought that counts!) Inside the cinema we did a bit of star spotting (frisson of excitement when we noticed Stephen Fry wandering near us) and waited for the stars of the film to come in. Of course they had to wait for the Duke of Cambridge to arrive – which he did in suitably stylish fashion. Having watched the feed of him meeting and greeting everyone I do have a new found respect for William who seemed to be chatting engagingly with everyone present – the ability to make small talk with everyone you meet is no mean feat! It was quite endearing to see how nervous everyone got about meeting William – there was (kind) laughter & a cheer from the audience in the cinema for one gentleman who was one of the first to meet him who had the misfortune to be caught on camera looking visibly terrified. Meeting and greeting done the cast entered the cinema (I must mention how lovely Martin and his partner Amanda Abbington looked - Amanda’s dress was so so sparkly in person and they both looked wonderful) followed by Prince William who entered the cinema by the entrance right by where we were sitting which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to royalty. Sir Ian McKellen then gave a lovely speech on stage about the important work that CBTF do and offered everyone’s good wishes to the Duchess of Cambridge and it was time for us to don our 3d glasses (Martin was one of the first to do so and astonishingly somehow managed to make them look stylish) and see one of the most anticipated films of the year.

And my verdict after finally getting to see the film? Well alas I rather have mixed feelings about it. It was hugely enjoyable and entertaining but didn’t quite capture my heart in the same way that The Fellowship of the Ring did.

Focusing on the positives first Martin Freeman is utterly magnificent as Bilbo Baggins. I simply could not have hoped for a more perfect Bilbo Baggins. He effortlessly carries the picture and is by some distance the best thing in it. From the moment we meet him dressed in his Hobbit finery and fussily blowing smoke rings at Gandalf Martin Freeman is just completely and totally perfect. The character is exactly as I envisaged reading the book – Martin captures both Bilbo’s fussiness and his pomposity as well as his hidden depths of strength, compassion and bravery. Tolkien purists may well quibble with some of the liberties taken with Bilbo’s storyline (Bilbo choosing to seek adventure himself rather than being fetched by Gandalf for example) but it’s easy to understand why Sir Peter Jackson changed a few minor details to make Bilbo a slightly more proactive and heroic character. Bilbo’s interaction with the dwarves (Thorin especially) is engaging and his final speech to them about why he chose to go on their quest with them is just really lovely. The film asks a lot of Martin Freeman and he delivers in spades. 

I was delighted that the best sequence in the film was the one I was awaiting with the most trepidation. Riddles in the Dark – the first meeting between Gollum and Bilbo was the one sequence in the book which gripped me the most as a child and has stayed with me ever since. I was so hoping it would be done well and thankfully it’s the best segment of the film. Andy Serkis is, as ever, a complete wonder as Gollum capturing both the murderous menace of the vengeful Gollum and the childlike vulnerability of Smeagol.  Every moment of that scene is captured so perfectly from the book including the description of Gollum’s eyes flashing in the dark. It’s a short scene containing some really momentous moments including Bilbo finding the ring and it’s played perfectly. Martin’s look of empathy as Bilbo allows pity to stay his hand is just wonderful. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more sequences equally as strong in the rest of the film.

Elsewhere in the cast Richard Armitage is suitably majestic and glowery as Thorin Oakenshield. The machinations of the plot rather deprive Armitage of the opportunity to be a suitably Aragon-esque hero (he gets rescued by others far too often) but will presumably have his moment in the sun in later films.

Of the other dwarves Ken Stott is fun as the grouchy Balin and James Nesbitt is mischievous and likeable as Bofur. I suspect Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast the Brown will be a Marmite character but I greatly enjoyed his quirky turn (although I could have done without the makeup touch of him being caked in bird poo) and found his cgi army of cute hedgehogs and bunnies endearing. Ian McKellen is always magnificent but Gandalf doesn’t command the attention in quite the same way in An Unexpected Journey but again that will no doubt change in the later films. 

Much has been made of the new technology being used for the film and the higher rate of 48 frames per second. I can’t swear to what we watched at the premiere but would assume that we did see it in 48fps – it was certainly quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The higher frame rate certainly has some advantages. The depth of clarity it provides is just stunning. Colours are bright, vibrant and rich (none of the typical murky darkness that is associated with 3d films), the lighting is beautiful and you can see things in extraordinary detail. In some sequences (riddles in the dark being a good example) the higher frame rate just makes the film absolutely soar. It has been said that the higher frame rate “lifts a veil from your vision” but there are drawbacks to that – this is a fantasy world and the higher frame rate sucks you in too close to the action on occasion when you need to be able to take a step back and bask in this world that Jackson has created. The depth of clarity has the unfortunate side effect in some sequences of making the sets look like sets and cheap ones at that. It struggles with movement – sometimes making people look like CGI and it has the effect of making the actual CGI sequences look like something out of a video game. Sometimes the film looks as if it has been shot on a handheld camera – like the world’s most expensive home movie. It’s clearly extraordinary technology and indeed technology that we’re not used to and so it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand but I would like to see the film again at a slower film rate so I can compare. Certainly on first viewing I wouldn’t say it was necessary to see a version showing the higher frame rate.

 But despite the perfectness of Martin Freeman as Bilbo and some truly wonderful moments I didn’t love the film as much as I’d hoped. The film manages to be both a little overlong and rather plot light. The Hobbit is frankly a rather slender novel – it was always going to be a bit of a stretch turning it into three films. I have no doubt that The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey will work absolutely perfectly when viewed in conjunction with the upcoming two films but it doesn’t quite work as a stand alone and it’s asking a lot of the audience to wait another 18 months to see how the story plays out. This first instalment ends shortly after Bilbo & co meet the eagles and just before they meet Beorn. Which is barely a third of the book. By stretching the plot out so much the film does rather suffer- Smaug is the villain of the piece but he isn’t really present in the first film so the chief villain becomes a CGI Orc called Azog who is sadly a little underwhelming depriving the film of a sense of menace. Some sequences are over long (I will sheepishly confess that the meeting between Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond in Rivendell was too much for my hideously jet lagged soul and I may have momentarily drifted off) while others like Bilbo meeting the dwarves seem a little short. It’s the characterisation that suffers the most. The majority of the dwarves don’t actually get a lot to do and it’s hard to distinguish between them – you get the sense again that we’re waiting for the next two films for them all to get their chance to shine. We also don’t meet most of the major players (Smaug, Beorn, Bard the Bowman) and those we do (the Necromancer, Thranduil) are really blink and you’ll miss them cameos.  The film has certainly left me impatient to see the other 2 films so that I can watch them as a whole but it isn’t the convincing stand alone The Fellowship of the Ring was.

Benedict Cumberbatch is of course playing both the Necromancer and Smaug via the wonder of motion capture. We get to see the outline of the Necromancer and hear for the briefest of moments his voice but I can’t wait to see more. And as for the beastly Smaug? As I reported some time ago the film ends with Smaug opening one (very large) eye. We neither see nor hear him but I cannot wait to see him in all his glory! Benedict gets a credit at the end of the film which was unexpected but lovely to see.

I’m seeing the film again this weekend at the Imax and am intrigued to see if I feel more favourably towards it on a second viewing (and whilst less jet lagged!). But at the moment my verdict is that it’s an encouraging start featuring a knock out performance from Martin Freeman that has certainly whetted my appetite for the other two films but that it doesn’t quite work as a standalone film.