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REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

During the painfully protracted finale of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (the episode that launched a thousand scurrilous man-love jokes) I felt myself mutating into Gollum.

I was bug-eyed from staring at the screen for nearly four hours, my flesh was turning sallow from lack of sunlight and I kept arguing with myself about the quality of the movie. "Precious we think it is! Rubbish we think it is!"

So you can imagine my reluctance to have my passport stamped for another journey to Middle-Earth, especially since Peter Jackson made the financially savvy decision to sprawl J.R.R. Tolkien's slender LOTR prequel over three films and nine hours (rather ironic since one of the major lessons of The Hobbit is the dangers posed by gold and greed).

My confidence in Jackson was weakened further by the failure of his two post-LOTR efforts, King Kong and The Lovely Bones. Methinks the New Zealand knight is more producer than director, a deep-pocketed showman able to conjure millions and command armies but lacking a genuine artistic sensibility.

However, I emerged relatively unscathed from The Hobbit despite the lukewarm response overseas and, at times, I was swept up by the story of how the young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins a group of dispossessed dwarves on a quest to steal back their gold and reclaim their land from a dragon.

I didn't even mind the slowness of the quest to begin (one of the biggest gripes about the movie). This is going to be a long journey so it's understandable that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro (the film's original director) wanted to lay down the foundations, to show us homebody Bilbo in his cosy digs in Bag End to underscore his growth to maturity and capability.

And I love the character of Thorin, the fearless dwarf leader who thinks nothing of swinging his sword at much bigger combatants. Thorin (Richard Armitage) would have to sit on a booster seat to drive a car but he has such brooding good looks and bearing that he may become the first half-pint heart-throb in movie history.

But ever since the end credits rolled on The Hobbit I have once again been morphing into Gollum, startled by the beauty and grandeur of scenes and sequences then, just as I was settling into what should have been the big-screen fantasy ride of the year, I was thrown out of my reverie by images of gob-smacking cheesiness.

The source of both the glory and the gaudiness of The Hobbit is the same: Jackson's bold decision to film not simply in 3-D, the standard for this kind of CGI-laden action-fantasy, but to use a technological innovation called high frame rate or HFR, which doubles shooting speed from 24 frames per second (the industry standard since the beginning of cinema) to 48 frames per second.

Many have complained that HFR makes the image so bright and sharp and realistic that it looks like high-definition television. There is little point in achieving greater realism when it makes everything look more artificial (a colleague declared that it looked like an episode of Dr Who before fleeing the cinema half-way through).

However, the real problem is not so much the increase in clarity (we'll get used to that in time) but maddening inconsistency, with no scene or even shot within a scene matching satisfyingly with the one that went before or the one after. I'm not sure if it is teething problems with the new technology or artistic failure but we are left with a crazy quilt of looks.

(It is worth noting that only four cinemas in Perth are screening in HFR and that, according to reports, the 24 frames-per-second version is easier on the eye).

But for all the faults of this first instalment of The Hobbit I'm willing to stick out the experiment with Jackson simply because of a single scene, the famous riddling contest between Bilbo and Gollum.

Gollum was by far the most memorable creature from Lord of the Rings and here is rendered even more vividly - his eyes bulging like blue bowling balls, his skin stretched over his bones like a membrane and that gargoyle-like grin/snarl even crazier and more threatening than ever. Poor Bilbo is afraid, very afraid, and I even shuddered myself.

This and other stunning sequences, such as the eye-popping smackdown between two Transformers-style mountains and visit to the elven metropolis Rivendell, make The Hobbit worth a visit, but LOTR fans should be prepared to be exhilarated and appalled then exhilarated again. Semi-precious, as Gollum might say.