I guess I should start with the technology. 3D HDF and 48fps.
So I've never seen 3D before and I have to say its effective in delivering a 3D environment. Certainly it's quite jarring as the film starts and during the opening prologue was so distracting that I was grateful I had read the book as I had no idea what was going on but as the film went along my eyes quickly adjusted and it became 'normal'. For and against. What 3D does is really highlight processed shots, green screens. In films of this type full of fantastical CG environments and backdrops it plays against the reality of a person being in that environment. However during the real set scenes, such as Bag End and the stunning New Zealand exteriors its brilliant in depicting an environment that you can 'reach into'. Until I became accustomed to it there were a few times early on during the standard over the shoulder shots I became irritated as it had given me the impression that somebody in the auditorium had stood up.
Jackson wisely avoids cheesy 'throwing' things in your face shots, one of my reservations about 3D, although cheekily does so once or twice. One Orc thrown fireball had me flinching to duck which instantly knocked me out of the scene. But it's during the slower, less extravagant scenes where it really shines, really puts you into the movie and when I say into I really mean INTO as opposed to things coming at you. One memorable instance, for me, was an early scene in Bag End with Gandalf standing over a fire place and we are looking at another actor through his pipe weed smoke.. I felt like I could suck it up there and then, just to see if I could get high.
There are however things about 3D which have changed film language, for better or worse. Focus pulling shots are completely absent and simply don't work anymore. Like in Fellowship of the Ring Jackson again uses 'The Vertigo Shot' when he introduces this trilogy's main villain and in 3D it fails miserably.
The Vertigo Shot
Overall I was more immersed in the movie when I wasn't noticing the 3D or it wasn't so prominent. This I put down to simply the 100+ years of film conditioning that we have all been subject to. So, a case of more for less, literally.
Now 48fps and HDF. It is clear, really crystal clear and smooth. That combined with the 'into' 3D gives for the most realistic images I've ever seen. Sitting in the auditorium it's like looking into another room through a huge glassless window frame. Many have derided it and they have a fair point which I can't dispute, comparisons to it looking like behind the scenes video footage and not the real film are legion. Yes you really can see every stitch and seam, every blemish and hair. It doesn't look like film, true, but I would dismiss reports and experience it for yourself. It's not as 'fake TV show looking' as they say. Remember the jump from video to DVD and now Bluray? This new tech, if it catches on, which I think it will, will change the look of movies forever and what we will expect. I don't know about you but I just couldn't go back to video after DVD just as much as I can't go back to DVD from Bluray.
During the filming of John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing a very young Rob Bottin whilst shooting his fabulously disgusting Dog/Thing animatronic infamously screamed "Less F-ing Light John, less light". Now is The Hobbit the right movie to showcase this new definition? Frankly NO. Now don't get me wrong everything looks fantastic. It hasn't shifted or changed my opinion of CGI, it still looks fake and wrong just the same as it always did in 24fps digital or film so that's moot. Again Gollum looks utterly believable but just watch the fire in in Bilbo's Bag End fireplace. Strange things occur where you don't expect them, motion blur being absent, for example, make simple shots like sitting on a moving horse look hokey. This is a fantasy movie and a fantasy shouldn't look 'like real life'. It's the difference between the sterile Starships of Star Trek or the dirty oil stained believability of Alien's Nostromo.
In different hands and different genres it could become a fabulous story telling tool. Powell and Pressburger in their 1946 film A Matter Of Life And Death used colour and black and white to depict life and the afterlife ( real life in colour, heaven in black and white ). So you could now use standard frame rates and definition to depict one reality and 48fps HDF to depict another. An exciting prospect.
As another reviewer said 'There is no Phantom Menace syndrome' Given it's from the same Director and production team, The Hobbit slips right back into the middle earth universe from Lord of the Rings. Sure there are technical improvements but the world is comfortably familiar. However for all these advances the film is smaller in scope and scale. The stakes aren't as high this time and this is down to the source material.
An Unexpected Journey covers the first six chapters of the book which have been admirably adapted for the screen, all the stand out set pieces are incorporated or played homage to. Some work better than others, the encounter with the three Trolls feels like a missed opportunity to add a little more suspense and concludes far to quickly, it's played for laughs, like the rest of the film it's lighter in tone to Lord of the Rings.
There have been additions to the screenplay which were absent from the book and are purely constructs of Jackson and the screenwriters. One of the more commendable is an addition to the main quest. In the book its all about reclaiming stolen gold from the magpie-esque Dragon Smaug. Here there is an added emotional dimension, the Dwarves are also trying to reclaim their lost home. This addition works wonders and gives Martin Freeman's very British Bilbo a satisfying story arc.
All the main players are excellent and we get welcome returns from favorites, all apart from an aging Ian Holm look just as they did in the first/last three films. One problem again down to the book itself is that the sheer number of Dwarves prevents you from getting to know these characters and all, apart from James Nesbitt's Bofur and Richard Armitage's Thorin, feel like nothing more than background players. With another six hours to go lets hope we can get to know them all.
For a film lasting just under three hours it moves along at a brisk pace, there is no 'rambling on' here and the set pieces come thick and fast sometimes giving you little time to breath. This speed somehow compresses the journey, you never get the feeling they have travelled any vast distance. Jackson has already confirmed an extended cut running approximately twenty minutes longer so hopefully this along with some added character moments will be addressed.
Much like he did with Led Zeppelins girl it's Gollum that again steals the film, in fact the whole movie steps up into overdrive the moment he comes on screen, his heartbreaking realization at the loss of his 'precious' is the films best moment. The riddles in the dark prove that for all its technical grandiosity its dialogue character driven moments which still make for the best cinema.
The action scenes are wildly inventive and fun, one particular and amusing gag involving a rolling bolder gleefully demonstrates what would have happened had Indiana Jones not been such a good runner, but, there are cases of 'just because you can doesn't mean that you should'. One instance, while escaping from Barry "Hello Possums!" Humphries marvellously repulsive and funny ball bag chinned Goblin King, our hero's find themselves on a falling walkway, it pushes the bounds of believability just that too far, although one suspects Jackson knows this as he has one character ask if he has 'got to be joking?'.
This being a Peter Jackson movie it still has the requisite decapitations and appendages being hacked off but is relatively bloodless, a belly slash fails to spill its promise. So its relatively child friendly and more juvenile than the much darker second trilogy. A great family film.
Not quite as good as its first predecessor but a welcome addition. I wildly enjoyed the full 3D HDF experience, I recommend finding the biggest screen you can, but it left me with a niggling little desire to crawl back into my preconditioned comfy Hobbit hole and watch The Hobbit the film on film.... for now.
Four out of five stars. Jackson done good.