Kitsch Realism: Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – cinema review
Jackson’s bloated return to Middle Earth is exposed under High Frame Rate’s ugly glare. Oh, and calling this a Journey is pushing it, frankly.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
(Peter Jackson, 2012)
In the late 90s, the esteemed film critic Jonathan Romney gave a talk to my university class on the subject of CGI. Pointing at the likes of Titanic, Romney proposed a new genre that he called “kitsch realism,” in which the more directors attempted to do the glossy sheen of digital effects to achieve naturalistic action, the more jarring it actually became. With the first film in his trilogy based on The Hobbit, Peter Jackson has taken kitsch realism to a new level with the introduction of High Frame Rate – twice as lifelike as other films, and twice as fake.
The awful irony is that, a decade ago, Jackson was the pioneer most likely to synthesise the old and the new. For all its high-tech FX, The Lord Of The Rings had enough burnished textures and real-world locations to feel like it could have been made in some hitherto undiscovered country like Middle Earth (or, to be precise, New Zealand). A quick check at the credits will tell you that the exact same team, right down to the cinematographer, has made An Unexpected Journey, but the imposition of HFR produces very different results. It feels like the work of amateurs compared to Rings’ master craftsmen.
As others have commented, it’s too vivid, echoing the crystal-clear definition of what television producers used to call OB (for Outside Broadcast). It has the vibe of a late 1980s / early 1990s Sunday afternoon BBC fantasy serial – a comparison that’s easy to make given the presence of that era’s Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy – while the action sequences have the depthless clarity of a televised sporting event. The cruellest comparison is that The Shire, which once looked like a picturesque, winsomely charming otherworld, now looks like the hill that the Teletubbies lived on.
It’s horribly distracting, chiefly because it magnifies other flaws in the aesthetic. While Jackson’s ability to move a camera retains its exuberant panache, some of his compositions have a curiously inelegant design, possibly because he never finds a satisfactory solution to showing all of the film’s company of dwarves together. Brusque editing doesn’t help, conveying the size of the team by smashing together small pockets of dwarves, or isolating Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins with a clod-hopping lack of subtlety.
In fairness to the editor, he’s clearly been instructed not to bother paring anything down. The longer, the better has been Jackson’s credo for a while, and the most unexpected thing about this journey is that it goes anywhere at all. Three films to tell a slim volume of children’s adventure is auteur hubris at its most advanced, and the pace is damaged before Bilbo is even asked to go on a trip, with a redundant framing device (seemingly designed solely to bring back Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, as a reminder of the Rings connection) and then an equally redundant action set-piece, whose sole purpose is to keep the audience awake long enough to actually introduce young Bilbo.
This might seem harsh, but Tolkien’s book hit the ground running on its little furry feet and never stopped. Here, instead, Jackson is forever thinking about the overall mythic shape of his six-film epic, demanding that we reconvene in Rivendell so that the Rings cast can reunite, discuss signs and portents and exchange weighty glances. Remember that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first, and this is just shameless retconning for the fanboys. Worse, it fundamentally missells the purity of the story. Jackson is so insistent on turning it into a new set of Star Wars prequels, that it’s no wonder the film’s journey to the screen was so protracted. When Guillermo Del Toro walks away from what would be his biggest hit, and a studio even tries to commit suicide rather than make the damn thing, you should probably reconsider the virtues of the project.
It’s left to the newcomers to engineer some of the passion that made The Lord Of The Rings so watchable. Freeman is exceptional, a suitably Everyman-esque (Everyhobbit?) hero who uses his unbeatable expertise with a puzzled frown to great effect. The dwarves are a lively bunch; if some of them fail to register, it’s through no fault of the actors, and the ones who do register – notably Ken Stott’s old-timer – bring a twinkling warmth to archetypal characters. Even Richard Armitage is bearable.
And, yes, when Jackson remembers the story he’s supposed to be adapting, the tone feels right even if the look doesn’t. The encounter with the trolls is the kind of dark-hearted slapstick with which Jackson made his name, while Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis playing it to 11, safe in the knowledge that nobody will mind) has a genuine sense of mischief and wonder. It’s just a shame that these sequences are spread so thinly by the inclusion of endless flashbacks, detours and stoppages. Already, with two films still to come, I can imagine budding editors wanting to chop out the dead wood and make a faithful, single-film version of The Hobbit – an “unextended cut,” if you will, or more aptly, An Expected Journey.