And finally it's here, and there are a number of questions you're going to want answered, which I will do here and elsewhere, but above all, is it any good? The answer is yes, it is any good, but not as good. Goodish, in other words. Now read on.
The most vexed issues around this film are a) that it's very long (nearly 3 hours) and b) that it's only the first part of three. Given that the source novel is shorter than any single one of the Lord Of The Rings series, this seems to be bothering people. And I can see why. Because yes, the film is too long, and one of the reasons is that Peter Jackson has made the most of the original, added in new story strands and ramped up the action sequences. I think there are valid reasons for this, even though the outcome may not be ideal. More of that anon.
Just in case anyone is not familiar with the original J R R Tolkien book, which was written, don't forget, primarily for children, I will set the film in context. The Hobbit was published 75 years ago, before any of the Lord of the Rings novels. It is a slight and enjoyable entertainment about Bilbo Baggins, who goes on an adventure with 13 dwarves and a wizard called Gandalf. Its success provoked a desire for more stories from the same world, and Tolkien became sufficiently immersed in the process to write three large books as a trilogy, and then later, The Silmarillion. In effect, out of the small seedling of The Hobbit emerged the whole Middle Earth epic that has come to be so popular over the decades.
So, how do you go about filmng it? Perhaps, if The Hobbit had been filmed before LOTR, it might have been possible to keep it simple, but with a huge worldwide audience wanting more of the same, it has become necessary (or has been seen to be) to inflate the story into more epic proportions. The film starts with backstory, as we learn about the huge wealth of the dwarves, the arrival of Smaug, the semi-destruction of the town of Dale, and the battle between the dwarves and the Orcs. We see an elderly Bilbo telling a young Frodo his story, before we slip back 60 years to when a young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has not even met Gandalf. But that's all about to change. Because Gandalf is enlisting an unwilling Bilbo as a burglar to help the dwarves on their mission to reclaim their treasure, and though he is unwilling to abandon his home comforts, the lure of an adventure is too much for his Took blood, and off he goes without his handerchief into dangers unknown.
The band meet trolls, orcs, wargs and goblins and undergo a number of dangers. They go to Rivendell and meet Elrond (Saruman and Galadriel also show up), and Bilbo meets Gollum and acquires the precious that plays such a big part in the later books/films. All, or nearly all of this is faithful to the book, but it still takes 169 minutes to get them to the point where they escape from the wargs via eagle. This is not entirely a good thing. The film would certainly have been none the worse for being 15 – 30 minutes shorter, but Jackson obviously felt he needed to produce an epic, and that's what this is. Freeman is an excellent Bilbo, McKellen is, of course, the perfect Gandalf, and the dwarves are somewhere between endearing and annoying.
The version I saw was not only in 3D (pretty good) but also 48 frames per second (twice the normal) which means that everything is super super clear. Several of the scenes remind you of LOTR (escaping from goblins is not unlike escaping from Orcs), and there's a general tendency to show lots of sweeping helicopter shots of what is presumably New Zealand. I will reserve final judgment until we have seen all three parts (about 2 years from now), but for the time being, I will say that it's about what I expected. Fabulous to look at, a little bloated, not very well scripted, but overall, still a pretty remarkable achievement. Anyone who didn't like LOTR isn't going to like this, but if you did, you'll want another dose, as long as you don't expect the same high level of magic. So far, so goodish.