Even in my desert oubliette, we still get a little bit of culture over here – and in this case, "culture" would refer to being able to see new releases at the same time as in the States. So I was able to take in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" this last week. Bottom line? If I had to throw a "tl;dr" tag on this one, I would say that if you were devotee of Lord of the Rings, you would probably enjoy this one too. If not, you might get bored.
I'll start with the negatives. For one, it was waaay too long – and I say this as someone who still respects and honors Tolkien as the Godfather of the genre. Peter Jackson took the 1200 pages of the Lord of the Rings series and stretched it to about 11 hours, in the extended versions. The Hobbit is only 300 pages and at the rate of the first film, is on track for around nine hours of viewing time. Naturally, this results in new material having to be added to fill in between gaps in the book. I don't think a filmmaker has to be a slave to the source material and I don't mind new interpretations – but adding material for the purpose of drawing it out seems pointless. Just tell the story. Highlight for spoiler: the scene with the stone giants was the absolute worst offender, having no impact on the film, other than to slow the pacing and show off special-effects wizardry. It could have come out and saved eight minutes, without any harm.
And with all that screen time, the characters come across as cardboard-ish. There are thirteen dwarves; even before the movie, I could have named all twelve (pause while you collect yourself from the revelation that I am a nerd). But by watching the movie, you really don't get to know them very well. Thorin, the leader and king in exile, is sketched out better than most but spends most of the film in a perpetual grumpy state. He doesn't quite chew the scenery but close. Just not enough time was devoted to character development.
Now having said all that, I will note a few positives. The cinematography was unbelievable. The Hobbit looks even better than the Lord of the Rings series; the vistas of New Zealand are absolutely breathtaking and the CGI effects blend flawlessly. The goblin-infested mines in the Misty Mountains, the expanses of the Shire, Rivendell, the interior shots of Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) were all visually appealing. The musical score was another success, and well-metered: it was low-key at the right times and epic when needed. I also have to say I enjoyed seeing the old actors from LotR return. Ian McKellen (Gandalf) has noticeably aged and appears more withered than before – but Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) is, if anything, even more beautiful and regal than in the previous movies and does not appear to have aged a day. And on whole, I enjoyed the translation of the musical numbers from the novel. The singing dwarves added much-needed moments of levity to an otherwise bleak and depressing film. The action was interspersed with exposition and chatting at the right intervals, so it paced fairly well. I give the whole thing a B.
There are two more Hobbit movies scheduled: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014). At the end of the day, I think the three movies could have been compressed into two. Despite that, I'll probably still be in line to see them both, and end up with them on DVD.