The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review (Blu-ray)

With a running time pushing three hours, it’s not just an unexpected journey that the titular halfling embarks upon in this, the first big-screen adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s enduringly popular children’s book and the opening installment in Jackson’s new Middle-Earth trilogy, it’s a long one. And by the time the credits roll (some 16 minutes’worth), Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions – on a quest to reclaim the dwarven kingdom, and its treasure, from the fire-breathing squatter Smaug – are only halfway to their destination (as the dragon flies) and the end of chapter six in the book. Out of 19.

It’s a long journey alright, but it’s one you’ll be glad you’ve taken. If you enjoyed Jackson’s highly acclaimed The Lord of the Rings trilogy then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey offers more of the same: swarms of CGI creatures, sweeping (and reassuringly familiar) New Zealand landscapes, epic battle scenes, several returning characters (and actors), and one mysterious gold ring.

True to its origin as a much-loved children’s book, The Hobbit is noticeably lighter and more humorous in tone than its literary sequel, with much singing and slapstick in the earlier scenes; once we leave the Shire, however, with the exception of a brief (and possibly unnecessary) sojourn with the Elves at Rivendell, things take a much darker turn, with scenes of decapitations and mutilations that really push the boundaries of the film’s 12A certificate.

Freeman(director Jackson’s first choice for the title role) is inspired casting as Bilbo Baggins, and makes for a more likeable protagonist than Wood’s rather other-worldly Frodo (who, along with Holm as the older Bilbo, makes an appearance in the film’s opening framing story). The band of dwarves suffers at times from looking largely interchangeable, though some personalities do manage to emerge, with Stott’s Balin, Nesbit’s Bofur and Adam Brown’s Ori providing the colour and Armitage the heroics as brooding leader Thorin, the King of the Mountain who wants his mountain back. But the film’s true highlight is Serkis and his mo-cap Gollum. In the midst of the huge action set-pieces and stunning vistas, Gollum’s emotive face in close-up is truly a sight to behold.

The Hobbit 3D Blu-ray | Stuart Barr ★★★★★ You know The Hobbit is long when you crack open the Blu-ray case and find the 3D version of the film split over two discs! Actually, in fairness, this is clearly to present the best possible image and sound without having to compromise and resort to compression. The prospect of a near three-hour film in 3D is enough to give anyone pause, but at home the experience is painless, and the point of changeover between the two discs feels quite natural and carefully chosen. Speaking personally, it came at exactly the point where my desire for a cup of tea was becoming overwhelming.

The stereo visual presentation is as you would expect for such a high-profile movie – quite impeccable. In contrast to the very poor Dredd 3D presentation, the image is always stable, with little noticeable ghosting or crosstalk. I didn’t see the film theatrically in the controversial 48fps version, but the various issues that were reported simply don’t exist in this home entertainment version. The film most certainly does not look like TV; the sets and costumes look lush, detailed and certainly not cheap.

Whether the 3D really adds much to the experience is another matter. Early scenes in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole are mind boggling when you consider the use of forced perspective, but I quickly forgot to look for the joins and settled into the movie. There are sequences where the 3D really comes into its own, in particular anything involving Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy stealing every scene he’s in). If you hate 3D, this isn’t going to convince you of its worth. The Hobbit is not a film where the 3D seems integral to the mise-en-scene (examples being Hugo and Life of Pi). However, if you hate 3D the chances you bought a 3DTV at Christmas are probably slim. If you do own a stereoscopically-enabled set, then this is a must-buy release in all its Roger Dean triple-gatefold-sleeve, Arran sweater wearing, pipe smoking glory.

EXTRAS ★★★ The featurette cum travelogue New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth (6:35); more than two hours of behind-the-scenes footage with the 10 Video Blogs (2:07:07), kicking off with Start of Production on 14 April 2011 and finishing with Wellington World Premiere on 14 December 2012; six theatrical trailers (16:16); and three game trailers (2:06).

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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