Stuff's first Hobbit review
It took more than a decade, two directors and a lawsuit before The Hobbit made it to the big screen. Here's the first verdict.
Anticipation was high in Wellington at the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. So much had been written, so much speculated about Peter Jackson's return to Middle-earth.
We were about to see the first film shot in 48 frames per second - double the number of what has been the standard since the late 1920s.
But being a) sure there will be more than enough stories about how it's either brilliant or makes people sick and b) the majority of movie-goers won't get the chance to see it in the new format anyway (only about 1000 of the 24,000 theatres the movie opens at next week have the new technology), this review shall concentrate on the movie itself.
The story of The Hobbit will be known to most of us. It follows Bilbo Baggins, played by British actor Martin Freeman, who is rather unwillingly taken on a dwarf group's quest to reclaim their homeland (and a whole heap of gold of course, they're dwarves after all) from the evil dragon Smaug.
After a quick introduction about what has been going on in Middle-earth in the last century or so we're back in Bag End.
The movie picks us up and transports us back into a world we know - and apart from the fact that everything is so light and bright (yeah, those many frames do that to you) - it's just good to be back in the Shire.
To make the connection perfect, we meet the old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his much younger cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood) who both don't seem to have aged one day since the last movies.
But soon we rewind 60 years and meet the young Bilbo. Jackson could not have cast a better fit than Freeman. His slightly stand-offish, slightly awkward impersonation of the Hobbit is spot-on.
Where Frodo was all wide-eyed youth, Bilbo is much stroppier, certainly no hero from the outset, but still with the same heart of gold.
When his old friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, great as ever) shows up uninvited, and successively 13 dwarfs assemble in Bag End, intending to rope him in and take him onto an adventure, Bilbo is less than impressed.
But in the end the hobbit's curiosity wins and he joins dwarf-leader Thorin Oakenshield (an impressive Richard Armitage) and his company.
When casting the dwarfs, Jackson picked a mixture of domestic and international actors, some veterans and some fresh faces. In the 18 months they filmed, they certainly have developed great chemistry, and their distinctive characters and costumes show a lot of craftsmanship and love of details.
Another genius decision was to cast two flamboyant veteran actors for the roles of the wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and the Goblin King (Barry Humphries). Some may find the brown wizard's storyline a bit silly in parts, but that's what distinguishes The Hobbit from the Lord of the Rings movies.
Compared to LOTR, which tells of an epic fight of good and evil, The Hobbit is more light-hearted with many laugh-out-loud moments, but still delivers gory and glorious battle scenes.
And what a difference almost 10 years makes for special effects: The Hobbit shows a depth in details that maybe only computer games on the small screen have ever captured.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has enough similarities to LOTR that it will appeal to fans of the trilogy, but at the same time it carries its own feel and aesthetic - to be a beautiful beast in its own right.
It is also close enough to Tolkien's original work to feel like a true adaption, but takes some freedom and delivers a few surprises.
In its core, the first part of The Hobbit trilogy is a story of growth; Bilbo's journey from homebody to hero (well, sort of) and Thorin Oakenshield's from Hobbit spurner to Hobbit believer.
And the Government certainly got its money's worth in wide and epic shoots of the country's sceneries. These should help to keep drawing tourists to New Zealand and firm its reputation as Middle-earth.
At times, the story could maybe have been told a tad faster, but we're talking Peter Jackson here.
When the credits start to roll to Neil Finn's Song of the Lonely Mountain, after nearly three hours, the theatre burst into applause and nobody I talked to complained of sickness or drowsiness after the 48fps experience, but felt perfectly immersed into Middle-earth.
Will the 48fps be loved by everybody? Certainly not. Will it be the future of filming? Probably.
Great cast, great special effects and great entertainment. Yes, Peter Jackson is back at his game, and I can't wait to see if he keeps it up in what's to come.
Reviewer's rating: Four and a half stars
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (166 min)
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett.
Opens December 12.
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