The fourth film in the series is not for purists. JRR Tolkien’s short book was far lighter and less substantial that LOTR, and therefore needs tricking out with extra plot if it’s to fulfil the studio’s brief of three 3-hour 3D movies. Yet this isn’t automatically a bad thing. LOTR made all kinds of similar decisions to turn the trilogy into something filmable. Out went the Tom Bombadil section and other sequences that failed to move the plot on. So here we have the full set of characters back on a beefed-up quest that will eventually arrive at the battle with Smaug, the gold-loving dragon.
It starts slowly; the arrival of the trolls at Hobbiton takes too long – we get the joke and are anxious to move on, although it’s important to show the disruption to shire life. And the stop-off at the Elven outpost Rivendell is soporific, although it’s good to see Christopher Lee with a meatier role. Rivendell seems like a cross between Niagra Falls and Sevenoaks, with its inhabitants drifting and wafting about, and I half expected to find it full of Oxfam shops. Then it’s as if Jackson suddenly wakes up, piling on the orcs and wolves and trolls in well-staged battles until Gollum arrives.
Here we kick back into what we’ve all come to see; the corrupting power of evil made manifest. An electrifying sequence between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and Andy Serkis’s Gollum, solving riddles to see if one lives, is allowed to play out to a proper length, and from then one it’s completely thrilling, concluding with a wonderful shot of a bird tapping a snail against a rock, which is enough to waken Smaug from his slumbers.
Visually there’s been a lot of bitching from those purists about the decision to shoot at 48 frames per second. They’re wrong, the director was right. What the faster frame rate does is allow in more light to compensate for the darkening effect of 3D, so that the massive underground shots of mountains collapsing and dwarves escaping over bridges is now crisp enough to be able to follow clearly. It sorts out the details, rescuing the screen from muddiness and making the 3D much easier on the eye, and more subtle. The film does not ‘look like video’ (which in any case usually flattened out due to harsh lighting) but a dense, clear tapestry, and is often breath-catching.
I could have powered through all nine hours in one sitting, although some women in front of me were visibly bored – but then, perhaps this is the series that sorts out the genders more than Star Wars; I know very few females who’ve enjoyed the battle sequences as much as males. For me then, a wonderful return to this world – but then I found the books leaden and pompous, and welcome the idea that the film takes their essence and makes them more exciting.