And first and foremost, it's good to be back in Middle Earth. And I actually liked how Peter Jackson started at the beginning of Lord of the Rings, with the preparation for Bilbo's party. I thought it would just be a bit of fanboy service, an excuse to bring Ian Holm and Elijah Wood back...and maybe it was, but it worked, darn it (although it did bring up the question of why young Bilbo has more of an English accent than old Bilbo. I guess he lost his accent somewhat on his journeys.) And, in fact, the same with bringing Hugo Weaving back as Elrond (who is at least a part of the book) and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Christopher Lee as Saruman. They aren't in the book (as far as I can remember, unlike LOTR, I wasn't excited enough to go back and re-read the book just before the movies.) But they fit into Peter Jackson's Middle Earth easily, and their discussions about a growing evil and a "necromancer" who is turning the Green Woods into something the locals have started calling "Mirkwood" lends some much needed gravitas to a story whose source material is a much lighter children's story. I think balancing the silliness of the source material with the Middle Earth he's already created is one of Peter Jackson's biggest challenges here.
Speaking of silliness...Radagast the Brown. Okay, unlike a lot of criticism, I actually don't mind the eccentric, crazy hobo take on the character. I didn't need to see half of his face caked with bird crap. I don't care if it's in keeping with his character (his hair is a literal birds' nest.) Just...no. For that matter, I didn't need to see a troll blow his nose on Bilbo. For that matter, since when do trolls use handkerchiefs? (Again, I haven't read the book since I was a kid, so if that was in the book I'm sorry.)
I actually did like Radagast's sled pulled by bunnies. But then, I kind of have a thing for bunnies.
I also thought that stretching it out to three movies would be a big challenge (even though Jackson insisted he needed to do it because he came up with so much to shoot.) But I was surprised how the action kept going. I'm still skeptical as anyone about stretching it into three movies, but I have to admit that it never really dragged for me (maybe a bit during the introduction of all the dwarves.)
Ah, the dwarves. That's a sticky point. They are individualized enough that they all have their distinct characters. But there's so many of them and they're introduced so rapidly that it's still hard to care about each of them individually, other than Thorin Oakenshield. Perhaps this will improve with the next installments. But so far, nearly all the dwarves come off as comic relief, and that's more comic relief than this movie needs.
Now some of the technical points. First the IMAX 3D. It was generally okay. It broke Jason's Rule of 3D a few times and other times it just didn't make full use of the 3D potential (specifically, in one of the panorama scenes when the company was running across the screen, I thought a better use of 3D would be to have them running into the screen.) But all in all I'd give the 3D work a B-. And, of course, the IMAX screen is beautiful, and congratulations to Anchorage, AK for having an IMAX screen (at the Regal Tikahtnu.)
Oh yeah, I saw it in Anchorage, with (most of) my family. And that brings me to the next technical point--High Frame Rate, or HFR, or 48 fps (frames per second.) Movies were all at 24 fps from the advent of the soundtrack on the film until...now. Peter Jackson made THE HOBBIT an experiment in doubling that frame rate. And quite a bit of pixels have been sacrificed by others writing about it. Some say it looks "weird," "artificial," "plastic," "too real" (i.e., it looks like actors holding props, not dwarves holding axes and swords.) Alternatively, the action scenes are supposed to be clearer and easier to watch, since there's only half the motion blur. For the rest of my family, they thought it looked weird for a bit at the beginning, but they got used to it right away. For me, I thought it looked weird almost the whole time. The exception for the most part were night/low light scenes. And that's what I felt more than things being "fake" or even "too real," it's that light and shadows play a bit differently in 48 fps than 24 fps (this might also be a function of the Red Epic cameras they used.) I don't know a lot of the technical aspects of filmmaking, but it reminded me a lot of the first digitally-shot films where the digital cameras picked up light differently than film. It took a combination of art (learning to light digital video) and science (innovations and improvements in the cameras) to make DV look almost as good as film (cinephiles out there may now lynch me in effigy for suggesting that's even possible, but dammit, there is plenty of DV that looks great.) In any case, as I already said the rest of the family got used to it quickly, so this is bound to be a personal reaction. All I can advise is check it out for yourself and see what it's like for you.
The second aspect of HFR is how the action scenes are supposed to look clearer. And certainly it's good for that. But the thing is, Peter Jackson was already excellent at making battle scenes you could actually follow. The battles in LOTR are about a thousand times better than your average shaky-cam action scene. And the thing is, I felt like Jackson used HFR to engage in more shaky-cam antics than he ever had before (especially in the early scenes of Smaug's attack.) Going from relatively smoothly shot 24 fps to shaky-cam 48 fps is a step backwards, not a step forwards.
So, in the ultimate analysis...I don't think this experiment in HFR entirely worked. But I'm also not ready to abandon the experiment entirely. So here's hoping they get it to work better in the next couple of movies (and hoping other filmmakers make their own HFR experiments.)
Running Time: 169 minutes
My Total Minutes: 308,569