"I spent much of The Hobbit thinking about Lord of the Rings..."
Let me start with full disclosure:
I won't spoil stuff, even though the book has been around for 75 years.
I watched the 24 frames per second 2D, because in South Africa you have little choice.
I walked in wishing the film had been directed by Guillermo del Toro.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a game changer. Peter Jackson stepped in and proved to the world that epic fantasy was not only massively profitable, but could also be done with finesse and respect to its deeply revered roots.
Most importantly he didn't screw it up.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey must have been an interesting undertaking. There was no real way for him to top that feeling of watching the The Fellowship of the Ring in cinema for the first time. There was no way for him to surprise the viewer; Jackson's only possible direction was to just avoid Hindenburging.
In many ways The Hobbit is a safe film. It's interesting, but down the street interesting, not fly overseas interesting. Most of the risks have been piled onto the HFR 3D. (The film itself was never in any danger of tanking at the box office and Jackson and other parties would have seen a good opportunity to test the public.) Unfortunately, it's within this safety net that I felt least comfortable watching the film. The juxtaposition of classic Lord of the Rings melancholy with the lighter tone of this trilogy's subject matter meant the film never developed its own voice. I spent much of The Hobbit thinking about Lord of the Rings; that was simultaneously the point and the failing.
The humor didn't always sit well, like an awkward elephant in the room that tells fart jokes rather than keeping its mouth shut. I felt like I forced a laugh or two to save face before remembering it was too dark to care. The film is still very funny when it needs to be, but the wit outshines the physical. It is Martin Freeman's honest performance that hold it all together; he provides a solid base and takes every opportunity to slip in a special moment for the vigilant.
Weta's visuals confuse me once again. Simultaneously masters of compositing, and kings of the uncanny valley, every pan felt slightly like Russian Roulette. The 2D version of The Hobbit seems to hop from lush and active CG, to under populated and under textured shots. I want to blame a lot of it on my cinema, so I will, but what I cannot blame on my local pit of ineptitude is the rehashed feeling the monsters gave me. Jackson clearly intends the films to sit naturally in a viewing alongside the previous trilogy, and while the goal has been achieved by a mile, I can't help feeling cheated. Gollum is still a masterpiece, but a little Pan's Labryrinth couldn't have hurt the orcs and goblins.
Side note: Whoever is responsible for the pacing of the riddles in the dark scene deserves a medal.
Some scenes felt exactly the same as the Lord of the Rings films. Blow for blow, uncomfortably so. Obviously there's writer's symmetry to consider, both from the screenplay and the books themselves, but the throwbacks still detracted more than they added. What should feel like a nice reminder of the film's pedigree comes out instead, as awkward Déjà vu.
Okay - this has sounded pretty damning so far, as if I'm speaking of some early Wright Brothers' plane mangled in the dirt. The Hobbit does not fail to fly. It reaches the heights of its predecessors, and even manages it with a little more grace at times. Casting, wardrobe, and sets are all up to the staggering standard Jackson set for himself with his first venture into Middle-earth. Howard Shore's stirring music strikes a nostalgic cord when it isn't directly revisiting parts of the old Lord of the Rings' soundtrack - Interestingly, it's this bridge between the films that works flawlessly where others had felt forced or overkill.
Allusions to something greater are perhaps The Hobbit's strongest moments; clearly the access to The Silmarillion coming through in the wonderful script. Guillermo's influence manages to instill a constant sense of a world beyond the frame, not just in scope but also in heart. This is what I've come to expect from him; and was clearly necessary to help it sit comfortably along side Peter's previous achievements.
It was a great cinematic experience, and one I would gladly repeat in 48 frame were I able.
Yet at the back of my mind, under the layers of fandom and quality film making I've just been exposed to, I can't shake the feeling that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not the film it should have been. It's not often the studios align, allowing a chance to make something like this. Peter Jackson has done a wonderful job once again, but he shouldn't have.
I walked out wishing it had been left in Guillermo's hands. We would have gotten something truly special rather than an extension of something beautiful we already had.