Star Wars fans won’t be happy. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings had already staked a good claim to the Champion of Fantasy Cinema title. Comparing the two sets of original trilogies it was tough to pick a winner. But now Jackson has released his first prequel, the George Lucas crowd are hoping the wheels fall off the Middle Earth wagon in a Phantom Menace style blunder. LOTR could forge ahead if The Hobbit (2012) lands a heavy blow. And to the delight of cinema fans, and the irritation of Star Wars followers, it has.
My first Imax visit had to be a special film. It would be an expensive trip up on the train to London so I waited for the right movie; The Hobbit was it. If you’ve never tried Imax and you love cinema, you really need to pay a visit. I’m one of the first to complain about cinema prices these days but with Imax the expense finally seems justified. The screen size, the surround sound, it all staggers the senses, and when coupled with modern 3D technology this is the closest conventional cinema will get to placing the viewer in the film.
Imax certainly made The Hobbit an amazing viewing experience. The vistas of New Zealand were astounding in scale, the sweeping camera glides enthralling, the detail of Jackson and Tolkein’s world created more perfectly than they probably ever will be. But removing the spectacle of the Imax is The Hobbit still a great movie?
Jackson had his work cut out for him, just as Lucas previously. But even though fantasy cinema fans had been burned before by Lucas’ 1999 return, most of us still expected Jackson to deliver the goods. And deliver he did. The Hobbit does fall a little short of perfection. The central group aren’t fleshed out as well as the Fellowship were; most of the twelve dwarves remain unknown. Some of the scenes seem divergent to the main quest; spectacular as the Misty Mountain giant boxing match may be, you do wonder what the point is. The story also feels less epic than the original trilogy but then that was always taken as given. There has also been rumblings amongst critics and fans about the 48 frames-per-second rate that Jackson chose to shoot in, double the rate of the original trilogy. In reality most cinema goers will be hard pushed to notice the difference. And while the frantic motion of some of the action scenes was slightly disorientating, it was hard to know whether this was down to the frame rate or the sheer scale of the screen before me. I expect in the face of such a visually stunning film the frame-rate doesn’t really make much difference.
The list of everything The Hobbit does right would be far too extensive to note here. Most of the right moves are carried over from Jackson’s original trilogy. As before the director was careful to populate his spectacular looking world with top notch casting choices. Quality acting abounds again, none more so than Martin Freeman as Bilbo. A pitch perfect younger Ian Holm and a central everyman that ties the film together, it is a performance worthy of the Academy, though there’s no chance of the Englishman getting even a whiff of an Oscar thanks to their dislike of the genre. Elsewhere Sir Ian McKellan, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett continue their brilliant work. Even Christopher Lee defies age by turning in a creepy Saruman cameo.
There are plenty of links to the earlier films to, beyond the visual similarities. We get origins for Sting, Glamdring, and Bilbo’s three stone trolls, a Rivendell interlude, and an Elijah Wood and Ian Holm scene that plays like a deleted scene from Fellowship. The tone is certainly lighter (though Jackson’s trademark grue is present and correct) but the film still gives fans everything that could have wanted from an LOTR prequel. The small moments that begin to lay down the links between the two trilogies are subtle, mentions of dark shadows growing and unusual Orc activity. The appearance of the ring itself in the sublime Gollum / Riddles scene is almost underplayed, the piece of jewellery that drove the previous three films almost an afterthought until Gandalf eyes it suspiciously.
The Phantom Menace comparisons will continue, even more so now that The Hobbit succeeded where Lucas’ film failed. But in truth it’s unfair to associate the two. Jackson had the help of Tolkein, a literary giant, to put his script together. Lucas had to do it all on his own. Jackson also has mountains more directorial experience than Lucas had when he undertook Phantom. Likewise, to say that Jackson couldn’t really fail undermines all the hard work he and his cast and crew have gone through to create another incredible movie. Here’s to the next stage of the journey, and more expected success.