Length should absolutely not be an issue with movies. From this year alone Skyfall, Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia are all hugely satisfying films, and they're all substantially over two hours long. Just because something's only 85 minutes including credits doesn't mean it's any better than another film that needs another hour to tell its tale. Equally, of course, taking 160 minutes is no automatic barometer of worth. The best films find their own ideal length. Overlength, however, is a serious matter and this overlong-awaited return to Middle Earth really doesn't need to take 169 minutes to get about a third of the way into a 350-page book. I know Peter Jackson doesn't like to skimp, and I'm happy with the insane amount of padding in King Kong simply because it's such glorious padding, but the three Lord Of The Rings movies sadly tend towards a plod because Jackson wouldn't trim them down at all (and that's just the standard versions, never mind the extended cuts). That this film is just the first part of another trilogy based on a much slimmer source novel suggests there's a lot of plod to be had here as well. And indeed there is.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey links back to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy not just by including several familiar characters (Saruman The White, Galadriel, Elrond) but framing the whole thing as a reminiscence by Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) of the time when, as a young hobbit (Martin Freeman) he was pressed into service as a burglar by Gandalf (Ian McKellen). The task: to aid a dozen dwarfs whose homeland had been left in ruins by the gold-hungry dragon Smaug: the dwarfs are on a quest to take back their treasure and their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain. The arduous trek is peppered with spectacular encounters with trolls, orcs, stone giants, goblins and Azog The Defiler, long believed dead at the hands of dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (son of Thrain, son of Thror). But to decode the runic map showing the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain they must consult the elves of Rivendell: the sworn enemies of King Thorin....
So far, so pointy-eared twaddle. In fact, though needlessly drawn out, some of it is surprisingly good fun, particularly when set against the humourless Rings trilogy: the most obvious example is Sylvester McCoy who turns up as comedy wizard Radagast The Brown, a sort of St Francis Of Assisi figure with bird poo dripping down his face (it's as if his Seventh Doctor went mad and became a tramp). And there's also a lot of funny fantasy names of the "Blagmir, son of Og-Dukhus from the Eastern Kingdom of Splod" variety which it's impossible for any actor to deliver without making it sound dangerously like a spoof. John Carter suffered from this syndrome as well. Matters do grind to a halt, though, when
On the technical side, it's absolutely fine. Better than fine: the effects are flawless (whether the CGI monsters or the perspective trickery of getting Ian McKellen to look twice as tall as Martin Freeman), the scenery is breathtaking, and the big action set-pieces are as spectacular as you could expect. Howard Shore's score doesn't feel as drab as his scores for the Rings trilogy: I even rather liked the Neil Finn folk song over the end credits, though I could have done without the dwarfs bursting into song near the start. Colour me pleasantly surprised. However: I really needed some more definition of the dwarfs - only three or four have made their individual presences felt thus far, though the others may get their moments in the next two films. And it really needed to be shorter: as with Fellowship Of The Ring, this doesn't have an ending, merely a pause now they're within sight of the Lonely Mountain.
I didn't see it in the controversial new 48fps process, where the film was shot and is projected at 48 frames per second rather than the conventional 24. Advance reports suggested that for all the higher definition, it smoothed everything out and made it look like videotape from the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who or a 70s sitcom, and I didn't want my first impression of the film to be coloured by that kind of distraction. (Besides, my local wasn't showing it in 48fps anyway.) Nor did I see it in 3D, and yet again there was little in the 2D print that made you wish you were watching it in 3D - although I will give it a try as it is a new process. On the subject of pointless alternatives: I have no intention of trying it in IMAX or the D-Box shaky chair version: the film's flaws have nothing to do with the photographic or projection processes, and the standard 2D normalvision is perfectly acceptable.
Equally, no amount of expensive gimmickry will hide the huge overlength and portentousness, or the obvious question that plagued LOTR: if there are these huge birds that can carry our heroes away from danger whenever Gandalf summons them, why the hell don't they just ride them all the way rather than clambering over mountains and fighting trolls? Because then you wouldn't have a nine-hour trilogy spread over three years? An Unexpected Journey is a chore, especially at the start when the dwarfs turn up and the film takes a long time to get going; but there is some good stuff to be had and I wasn't nearly as bored as I'd feared. Somewhere in the 169 minutes, there's a cracking 109-minute film trying to get out.