Some pertinent business to deal with before I start my review proper:
1) The much-ballyhooed 48 frames per second process, which makes its debut with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is more or less unnoticeable. Advanced reports of the film looking like a TV soap opera, or as though it was shot on digital video, are utter piffle.
2) If you can see “The Hobbit” in traditional 2D, feel free to do so. I saw it in a 3D ‘LieMax’ screening and felt that the 3D frequently detracted from the experience – several action sequences were rendered impossible to watch comfortably, thanks to our old friend, Mr Irritating Motion Blur. Mrs Rolling Eyeballs, who saw the film with me, currently rates the film as a 5 out of 10 as she saw roughly half of it – IMAX 3D and people with glasses apparently don’t mix too well. A 2D viewing may be required for our actual full enjoyment of the film.
3) That 9 minute “Star Trek Into Darkness” prologue? The “Man of Steel” and “Pacific Rim” trailers? Conspicuous by their wholesale absence. Thanks, Cineworld, for screwing your UK consumers and having the nerve to charge a premium for an experience which is decidedly lacking.
Minor, nerd-entitlement caveats aside, did I actually enjoy the film?
Well, yes. Yes. Yes, yes, YES! It’s Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and a prodigiously talented ensemble in front of the camera and behind it delivering epic fantasy on the kind of scale that fans always dreamed of seeing but rarely experienced before Jackson’s initial “Lord of the Rings” trilogy expanded the possibility of cinematic adventure in the early part of the 2000’s.
Getting over the fact that these movies are inherently episodic and tell their story in a serial fashion – don’t count on getting much in the way of closure until the summer of 2014 – going back to Jackson’s Middle Earth is like visiting a much-loved holiday get away destination and finding everything much as you left it.
Breathtaking New Zealand vistas, Hobbit holes, craggy old wizards and Howard Shore‘s delightfully evocative musical score are very much present and correct – thankfully Mr Jackson has resisted the urge to cast Justin Bieber, pump up the dubstep and ‘fix’ that which isn’t broken. As I mentioned before, the major add-ons this time around – 3D and 48 FPS – are either a waste of time (3D) or imperceptible (48 FPS), so it does feel very much like business as usual.
The changes to the plot don’t really offer up anything particularly problematic – we get a fantastic prologue which deftly underlines lead dwarven warrior-in-exile Thorin Oakenshield‘s motivations and show us more of Middle Earth than we saw in the “LOTR” trilogy, and the climax imagines the events of ‘Out of the Frying Pan Into The Fire’ quite a bit differently, and really shows how Jackson and his team have rendered three films from a fairly slender piece of source material.
Where Tolkien’s classic tale for children of all ages alludes to action occurring off-screen or dispenses with blood and thunder battles in a sentence or two, Jackson’s film goes to town by mounting elaborate, bravura sequences which pile on the Orcs, Goblins and Warg enemies for our band to face off against. It’s probably a bit too intense for younger kids, I would guess – this iteration particularly amps up the ass-kicking whilst not exactly down-playing the whimsical nature of Tolkien’s book but emphasizing the heroics in an appropriately cinematic fashion.
On the performance side, Martin Freeman is superb as Bilbo the Younger. He’s not doing an Ian Holm impersonation, but instead gives a turn which is funny, touching, quietly decent and layered – I’m going to enjoy following him on his burglary mission and I predict that you will too. He’s perhaps at his best during the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence, which brings back Gollum for a spell and reminds you how utterly brilliant Andy Serkis is. New addition Richard Armitage makes a commanding appearance as Thorin, quietly dominating scenes and neatly filling the noticeable, Viggo Mortensen-shaped hole for a heroic, smouldering lead.
I really enjoyed this movie – tech qualms be damned. And I look forward to seeing more of Smaug, how Jackson stages the battle of the Five Armies and how the extended lore of Tolkien’s epic fantasy cycle is added to what is at heart a fairly simple and linear tale.
A qualified thumbs up for “The Hobbit” part the first it is, then. Try and find time in your Christmas celebration to see it and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too.