THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (166 min)
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett.
There's a scene in the MGM classic Singin' in the Rain where a group of Hollywood industry types are given a preview of a revolution in cinema history - the introduction of sound into moving pictures, which signalled the advent of the talkies. "It's vulgar!" they splutter, horrified at what they have witnessed. "It won't amount to a thing."
Sir Peter Jackson's newest tribute to the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien makes a leap of similar proportions in the advance of cinema technology, and it will be interesting to see whether contemporary audiences initially react the same way.
Mere 3D it ain't. Shooting at twice the rate of normal film (the format we've been used to up until now) has enabled the visionary filmmaker to capture twice as much detail and therefore produce an incredibly high definition movie that renders the actors and action as if right in front of our very eyes. (In pubs across the land people will henceforth be talking about HFR or High Frame Rate, so learn the lingo now!)
The effect is quite simply extraordinary, and unless you are a video-gamer, owner of a 3D television or a fan of old TV soaps like Days of our Lives, it'll be completely unlike anything you've seen before.
To some extent, the 48 fps (that's frames per second - keep up!) works a treat, though some viewers may initially find this technical assault on their eyes as distracting as it is wondrous. The risk is that seeing something so intensely real makes it harder to suspend disbelief - crucial, you'd think, for a fantasy story about goblins, dwarves and wizards.
Obviously Jackson's desire is to introduce us all to what will surely become the way of the future. However, not everyone will see The Hobbit in this hyper-realistic rendering, so traditional cinema-goers can be assured that the plot, characters and exciting pace of the movie translate in any format.
The Hobbit story itself needs little introduction, given the film's audience will comprise almost exclusively fans of the LOTR series or readers of the book(s).
The traditional quest story, interspersed with vibrant set-pieces of battles and madcap escapes, is fundamental to the genre and while An Unexpected Journey is more light-hearted than its predecessors (sadly lacking the menace of the LOTR's Ringwraiths), bear in mind it only covers the first third of a story that has much darker territory still to traverse.
What matters is who Jackson has cast to bring this beloved of tales to life and how well they have acquitted this most weighty of responsibilities.
Happily, Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins is pitch-perfect in his characterisation of the conservative, allergic little homebody who is coerced into adventuring with a motley band of dwarves, on a quest to save their home of Erebor from the fire-breathing dragon, Smaug.
Freeman freely admits he had big hairy feet to fill, following Elijah Wood's seminal turn as Frodo Baggins in the LOTR films. But Freeman's natural English charm and humility, expert comic timing (initially seen in the groundbreaking The Office) and expressive face is already earning him plaudits as a worthy successor.
The Hobbit's cast is mostly new, including Barry Humphries, unrecognisable as the Goblin King, and a company of mostly merry dwarves, headed by the dashing Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Those whose previous experience of dwarves stops at Gimli from the original film will be delighted by the introduction of two handsome brothers, played by Kiwi Dean O'Gorman and Irishman Aidan Turner. The rest of the posse include a host of well-known but prosthetically-altered faces, all clearly having a whale of a time.
And of course, there is the welcome return of Rings staples Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett's Galadriel (one character for whom the higher definition is extraordinarily favourable) and the inimitable Andy Serkis as Gollum, here played sixty or so years younger than when we met him in Fellowship of the Ring.
Serkis is hands-down the greatest thing about The Hobbit, his personification of the multiple-personalised creature even more of a revelation than his previous mastering of the role. The intensity conveyed by seeing him in 48 fps, leaping about his cave and challenging Bilbo to a game of riddles, makes for the most brilliantly acted, jaw-droppingly animated and compellingly dramatic scene in the film.
The double-edged sword of the new format is that some shots are so hyper-realistic they look like a Tourism NZ advert with a train of dwarves superimposed onto stunning scenery. It's also interesting how a daytime, sunlit orc battle fails to be as frightening or serious as they were in the darker LOTR.
But once your eye is tuned in to this brave new cinematic world, it dawns on you how apposite it is that An Unexpected Journey is leading the way.