Peter Jackson's latest Tolkien trilogy gets off to a sluggish start on Blu-ray
Set 60 years prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit tells the story of reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins, who joins the wizard Gandalf and a group of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their former home and the treasure it contains from the dragon Smaug. Or, at least, that's the idea behind J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved children's book.
But rather than just attempt a straightforward adaptation of the novel, Peter Jackson has decided that the cinematic version needs to be transformed into a true prequel to his earlier blockbuster fantasy trilogy. Which means splitting it into three movies and padding this first part out with unnecessary cameos (Frodo! Dracula! Agent Smith!) and adding in brand new subplots.
Yet, despite all of this …An Unexpected Journey's story still feels stretched way beyond breaking point and could have done with a good hour or so trimmed off the running time. But the film's biggest failure is its inability to use its lengthy running time to allow us to get to know the protagonists - so even after 169-minutes of screen time, you've next-to-no idea who most of our 15 heroes are outside of Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield. We can only hope that things pick up for …The Desolation of Smaug later this year.
Picture: It's makes no difference whether you opt to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2D or 3D – either way you are in for a truly sensational Blu-ray viewing experience.
Both of the 2.40:1-framed 1080p encodes continually wow viewers with their extraordinary level of meticulous fine detailing and sumptuous colour reproduction. Edge definition in both is also impeccably handled, as are the flawless contrast levels and shadow delineation.
Best of all, there is no trace of any distracting technical anomalies (such as artefacting or edge enhancement) to spoil your enjoyment of the image – helped in large part by Warner Home Video's sensible decision to split the 3D presentation across two Blu-ray platters, while giving the 2D version its own dedicated hi-def disc.
Picture rating: 5/5
Audio: For the most part …An Unexpected Journey's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix delivers everything you would expect from a fantasy blockbuster of its ilk. The soundfield is incredibly vast and immersive at all times, bristling with ambient effects that help bring the world of Middle-earth to life.
Directionality is also flawless, with the seven-channel surround mix allowing for particularly transparent panning. One of the best examples can be found during the game of riddles with Gollum in Chapter 24, with the corrupted creature's rasping voice moving around the soundfield as he threatens Bilbo from off-screen.
However, the lossless track does suffer from a problem with its LFE – specifically, there's very little activity below the 40-50Hz range. The upshot is that scenes such as Chapter 21's battling Rock Giants lack the really deep and tactile bass you might expect. While this will probably go unnoticed by those with modest living room systems, it will be of greater concern to those with dedicated cinema rooms and hardcore bass-hedz (like HCC's own Adam Rayner) who will likely find the LFE channel a little lacking compared to those offered by its contemporaries.
Not having seen the film when it played cinemas, we can't comment on whether or not this situation was also true of the film's native soundtrack, or if it is something that has been introduced in the move to a home theatre mix.
Audio rating: 4.5/5
Extras: While it's obvious that the lion's share of quality extra features are being held back for the inevitable Extended Edition (as horrible a thought as that is), this initial hi-def release does manage to cobble together a dedicated Blu-ray platter of bonus bits and pieces that may satisfy the less demanding viewer.
The real meat of the bonus goodies comes in the form of ten video blogs (running 127-minutes in total) hosted by Jackson covering a variety of different topics – Start of Production, Location Scouting, Shooting Block One, Filming in 3D, Locations Part 1, Locations Part 2, Stone St. Studios Tour, Wrap of Principal Photography, Post-Production Overview and Wellington World Premiere. Originally posted online between April 14, 2011, and December 14, 2012, we're glad to have them collected together in 1080p for this release. But at the same time, there's no doubt that die-hard fans will already have seen them all.
A larger problem comes from the fact that the blogs were ultimately produced to promote this first Hobbit film prior to its cinema release, and were therefore unwilling to spoil any the film's secrets and can't go into the kind of detail a dedicated documentary would offer.
Providing that you aren't fed up at looking at the New Zealand scenery after watching the film, Jackson and the production team also spend a little while touring some of the locations used to bring Middle-earth to life in the 7-minute New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth featurette.
Rounding things off are six film trailers, plus a trio of trailers for the Guardians of Middle-earth, The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth and Lego The Lord of the Rings videogames.
Extras rating: 2/5
We say: A magnificent-looking hi-def outing for Jackson's bloated fantasy epic
Warner Home Video, All-region BD, £28 Approx
HCC VERDICT: 3/5
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