So after bankruptcy, a change of director, strikes, a change of law and an extra movie, the first of The Hobbit films is finally here. I'm a Tolkien nerd - The Hobbit is one of the books I can first remember reading, and I read Lord of the Rings every year for a while. I'd not gone back to either book in more than a decade, but I'm enjoying a reread of The Hobbit and spent a happy hour today browsing the appendices at the end of Return of the King.
Doing this has reminded me of two things: firstly, I love Tolkien; secondly, there's so much material in The Hobbit and the background of Middle Earth you could easily make another trilogy. Whether Peter Jackson should have is another thing. To paraphrase one of my friends, it's hard to see how it's not going to mess with the story's narrative arc.
Jackson's off to a mixed start. The strengths and flaws of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong are apparent here. It looks great, with superb special effects and thrillingly imaginative battle scenes. There's some funny bits, some nice writing and some clever adaptation of the source material. It's also bloated with unnecessary or overlong scenes, has some overwrought dialogue and a few touches of eye-rolling ridiculousness. The Two Towers had Legolas the elf firing arrows while using a shield as a skateboard. An Unexpected Journey has Radagast the wizard with bird poo permanently caked in his hair.
The first review called Radagast the film's Jar Jar Binks. This is harsh - I liked his chariot - but not entirely unfair. Sometimes Radagast crosses the line from amusingly silly to painfully stupid. Please, no more eyeball-turning puffs on pipes.
The film does also suffer a little from familiarity. Most of it is variants on what we've seen before. Though that is inevitable and partly welcome, as the Lord of the Rings films are really good, it does mean the excitement of novelty is largely gone.
It's a good cast though, with Martin Freeman nailing Bilbo and Ian McKellen still delivering the goods as Gandalf. I'm not entirely sold on Richard Armitage's Thorin, but he's not terrible. Best of all is Andy Serkis's Gollum. The Riddles in the Dark chapter of The Hobbit is one of the best in fiction, and the movie does it justice.
Flawed as it is, I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. Going in with low expectations helped, and it is spectacular fun. If you didn't care for Lord of the Rings, or if you're a Tolkien purist, you'll likely hate it. If you're one of the millions who loved the first trilogy, you'll probably like this.
Finally, a word on the controversial and groundbreaking use of high-speed film. I saw it the 48 frames a second 3D and it's much like seeding high definition tv for the first time. At first it's a bit disconcerting as it looks too real. Another review talked about a loss of the painterly quality of film. You do get more used to it, but it is a bit of a different experience to traditional film.
On the plus side, it makes fantastic scenery look even more fantastic (there's plenty of New Zealand gorgeousness to admire), and the intricately detailed costumes don't suffer at all. On the minus side, being so clear and crisp means you can see that 3D glaringly lacks the subtle shades of depth you seeing in reality, and it makes some sets look fake. Artificial rocks in a studio set look like artificial rocks in a studio set.
Like An Unexpected Journey itself then, the higher speed 3D is a mixed bag. Some will like it, others hate it. Me, I'm not virulently opposed but I do prefer it the old way - 2D at 24 frames.