OPINION: ‘Please, Mr Gandalf, sir, don't hurt me. Don't turn me into anything . . . unnatural."
That was the cry from the hobbit Samwise, pinned down by a wizard in an early scene from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Now there seems to be a critical inquiry into whether our own cinematic wizard has turned the much more modestly sized story, The Hobbit, into something altogether unnatural.
The initial film trilogy was naturally epic. It was also so stupendously successful that few film projects in cinematic history have been as burdened by the sheer weight of public expectations as Jackson's return to Middle-earth.
Now, at last, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has started hitting screens and the critics have found themselves questioning whether J R R Tolkien's charming children's story has been pumped up with hormones or even, dare we say, genetically modified to create a product of the same dimensions as its bigger brother. (Which, apart from anything else, would rather subvert the already dodgy "100% Pure" New Zealand tourism marketing campaign running alongside the move.)
The cynical view is that this is what you get when a studio's commercial greed prevails. But Jackson does have a defence. After all, Tolkien himself kept growing the story. He filled in a good deal of extra information in his later writings, and Jackson and his partners have reportedly turned to these far more than to their own imaginings.
The less sour criticism is that, in any case, Jackson's cinematic stamina simply surpasses that of his audience. By common consent the new Hobbit action is once again gaspingly spectacular, but the journey takes a long time to start. One reviewer likened it to a version of The Wizard of Oz that stays in Kansas for the first hour. Maybe so, but let's not forget that it was in Kansas that Dorothy sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow. In time the MGM executive who memoed that song hadda go, because it slowed the whole movie down, was revealed to have been an idiot.
Anyway, films exist outside cinemas nowadays. People are more inclined to watch them at home, at their personal leisure. None of which excuses dullness or pointless meandering, but the home viewer does have the option of watching the story with the flexibility of a book reader, pausing and resuming it as many times as they're inclined.
That still leaves scope for the pure cinematic experience, which Jackson himself clearly loves. Perhaps the biggest point of hobbity contention is technical; his use of a much higher frame rate per second. This adds not just higher definition but more fluency to fast-paced action and grand battles.
Some say this makes scenes disconcertingly, rather than pleasingly, vivid. Other voices assure us it's a matter of acclimatising and that once you do you'll find it especially improves the 3-D experience.
Only a minority of cinemas have kitted up to provide this new capacity. Among them - and kudos for gutsiness - is the St James in Gore, which is now enjoying being able to declare that it's the only place in Southland moviegoers can see The Hobbit as Jackson intended.
The film will make an indecent amount of money as well as reminding its worldwide audience of New Zealand's fabulous scenery and the brilliance of its cinematic industry. And, small point, there's still a worldwide hankering for Jackson to transport us, once again, to his vision of Middle-earth. If this long-awaited revisitation could have been brisker then, seriously, so what?
- The Southland Times
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