NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
For the first two hours, there seems to be a horrible possibility that this epic-length adaptation of one-third of a short, unpretentious children’s book is going to be Peter Jackson’s Phantom Menace. A simple, affecting quest storyline (how wonderful ly perfect is the throwaway subtitle, ‘There and Back Again’?) gets obscured by epic footnotes, narrated flashbacks to huge battles, knockabout snot/poo-based gags, too many undifferentiated dwarves to keep track of (oh look – the James Nesbitt one’s said something, and him off Being Human has shot some arrows), speaking characters who register with less presence than the old branch Thorin (Richard Armitage) uses as a shield, a frankly smug and annoying revisiting of a career triumph role from Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, a gabbily dull foreshadowing conference that serves only to get Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee back on screen, and a preponderance of scenes in which anonymous evil hordes perish but the indiarubber core characters survive falling from a great height onto rocks or rocks falling from a great height onto them. Then, funnily enough when the fewest people are on screen, Jackson recovers his directing mojo and gets to the heart of Tolkien’s story, which is not about princes, elf mystics, sorcerers and dragons but two self-confessedly small creatures, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and scrawny goblinoid Gollum (CGAndy Serkis). Caught up in this quest, they show their true characters by embracing adventure and honour or turning inwards to bitterness and possessiveness. There’s not much in the LotR films like the ‘riddle’ sequence from The Hobbit, and it’s here that the film finally coheres and becomes gripping. Another choice that pays off, perhaps surprisingly, is keeping the songs … which don’t come across as embarrassing folk rock noodlings but actually lend the film its own tone separate from the mothership trilogy.
It’s a long haul to get here, though – going against industry (and his own) practice, perhaps Jackson could follow up the next two films by editing together a regular-length single movie adaptation that’s just the book. So, what else is new? The credit for ‘US casting’ must be a contractual obligation, for this almost completely eliminates Americans from the mix – aside from a needless Elijah Wood cameo in the needless framing prologue (with Ian Holm as old Bilbo), only Lee Pace (of Twilight) mixes in with the babbling rabble of Brits and Anzacs who give Middle Earth its accents. It’s not Jackson’s fault that Tolkein doesn’t give female characters much to do (Blanchett returns as an elf princess) and PC types who’ve groaned about the lack of people of colour don’t quite get that Middle Earth is 18th Century England bolted on to mediaeval Germany (strictly, all the Scots and Irish voices don’t fit, either). Jackson’s attempt to change the tone seems to mistake childish for childlike, so we get belches, sub-Python troll talk, Sylvester McCoy with a birds’ nest under his hat and a streak of shit in his hair (he’s a welcome addition, nonetheless) and the like. But all this wears off as the panoramic scenery and orc/goblin/eagle action sets in, and it dawns on the audience that there might be a reason to stick with the quest. The mini-arc Jackson gives this instalment is Bilbo’s reluctance to go on an adventure and his wavering about it – with his dwarf comrades’ expressed feelings that he’s not up to it weighing in on the chuck-it-all-and-go-home side; it’s not much, but Freeman (adding another hapless along-for-the-ride-yet-repository-of-all-decent-values role to his Arthur Dent and John Watson) sells it, and the final clinch with Armstrong’s not-that-stocky dwarf hero is moving. Benedict Cumberbatch is just a shadow here (as the Necromancer), Barry Humphries is a mo-cap model for a testicle-wattled goblin king and Ken Stott is one of the thirteen dwarves. Guillermo del Toro, originally set to direct, still gets a writing credit.
You’ve got your choice of formats. I thought I’d take a look at 48 fps 3D, which seems to be Jackson’s preferred mode. Who ever thought general audiences would have to ponder frame rates? It’s a peculiar choice. Most UK TV is shot on videotape and treated to a ‘film-look’ process (originally devised by ambitious porno filmmakers who wanted to disguise the fact they were no longer using film) … the higher frame rate tends to be the reverse of this process, taking one of the highest-ticket film franchises of all time and making it look like 1970s outside broadcast television. It seamlessly incorporates CG effects and gives crystal clarity to the landscapes, though actors and make-up people might weary of the heightened detail and slightly sped-up gestures. I love 1970s studio-based TV and can easily accept the look of tape drama, but it tends to make things look cheap even if they’re not – McCoy should be at home, since this does look quite a bit like his era of Doctor Who – and the key plus of the format – allowing for more realistic settings and performances – doesn’t really apply in a fantasy epic. The jury’s out on whether this will become a dominant mode of cinema in the digital era.