For fans eager to get the first critical verdict on Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth after The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered in Wellington on Wednesday night, it has been a frustrating couple of days. With the new film trilogy tipped to surpass its blockbuster megalith predecessor The Lord of the Rings at the global box office, it seemed certain that at least a handful of critics would make the decision to defy studio embargoes and publish and be damned. Instead, the only verdicts handed down thus far have come from luminaries such as film-maker Bryan Singer, and little-known Kiwi blogger Kylie Klein, who, it seems, was so overwhelmed by getting a ticket that her critical faculties were slightly swept away. Nothing from the trades, Variety and Hollywood Reporter, who you would usually expect to be first up to the oche, and nothing from the world’s newspapers … until now.
The New York Daily News’s Ethan Sacks offers a largely positive verdict on the first film in Jackson’s new opus, describing the film-maker himself as “the real wizard” of Middle-earth. Elsewhere, the review is frustratingly short on detail, but there are a few choice titbits to glean:
“The movie offers technological wizardry, thanks to a 48 frames-per-second format, twice the industry standard. Critics who saw a trailer earlier this year were unimpressed, but after a minute or two of adjusting, the higher resolution is eye-popping, similar to discovering HD television for the first time.
“Alas, the higher resolution has one downside: it really makes you wince when you see the obscenely corpulent Goblin King in such crystal clarity. Lighter and funnier than its Lord of the Rings predecessors, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey remains faithful to the fantasy world last seen in the 2003 Academy award-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
“The connections abound through the two-hour-40-minute epic, including important cameos from Andy Serkis’ Gollum and Elijah Wood’s Frodo. The result runs rings around most special-effects driven blockbusters.”
Weirdest of all is that when I first read the review, at around 11pm last night, it suggested that the portrayal of wizard Radagast the Brown by Sylvester McCoy, “descends into Jar Jar Binks territory”. The comment was picked up across the blogosphere overnight, but has since mysteriously disappeared from Sacks’ verdict as if suddenly slipping on its own ring of invisibility. It’s also notable that the man the News apparently flew all the way to Wellington for the most important premiere this decade does not appear to be the paper’s go-to film critic: recent previous articles include pieces on a pop single by the numerous children of “Octomom” Nadya Suleman and one on Jessica Simpson’s recent weight loss. Roger Ebert this ain’t.
Interestingly, Klein (the Kiwi blogger) has had a bit more to say on the subject since first tweeting in the wake of Wednesday’s premiere. “For the record, there is nothing remotely Jar Jar about Radagast,” she wrote on Thursday. “Sylvester McCoy is wonderful; the character, delightfully weird. The characters shine in this film. Perfect casting & brilliant delivery across the board.” Earlier she had said: “Tone is, naturally, different; lighter in some respects, but on a par. If you loved LOTR you will love this.”
Word is that we won’t get to see any more reviews now until 5 December, when the embargo ends. Could this be Jackson’s way of avoiding poor publicity? One could hardly blame him given the run of negative headlines that have greeted The Hobbit’s every furry-footed move since being greenlit six years ago. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ recent accusation that more than 20 animals had died on a farm where they were being housed during filming may just have been the last straw, coming after the horrendous union spat that almost sent the movie packing its bags and off to central Europe two years ago.
If reviews are being curtailed until closer to the release date, it’s a largely pointless move. I suspect that An Unexpected Journey is largely critic-proof in the same way that the middle two Pirates of the Caribbean movies continued to drive all before them at the box office despite the antipathy of reviewers and Spider-Man 3 remains the highest-grossing movie about Marvel’s webslinger despite being by far the weakest instalment. The Lord of the Rings was so beloved by filmgoers that they would turn out to see Jackson’s return to the Shire if it featured two hours of the wildlife-loving Radagast tending to injured giant eagle chicks like some horrendous Tolkienesque take on Animal Hospital.
If An Unexpected Journey does turn out to be disappointing, the second and third movies in the trilogy will be where studios take a knock, especially on the final instalment that promises to be a bit of the end of Tolkien’s 1937 children’s novel and some other Middle-earthy stuff that the writer never intended to be part of the same story. In the meantime, we’ll just have to hold on for those first genuine reviews and hope Sacks’ Jar Jar comment was excised for the right reasons. Has all the talk of too many movies, too many frames per second and too many animal deaths put you off An Unexpected Journey? Or are you ready to throw yourself back into Jackson’s Middle-earth like a Took hoping for a second breakfast?
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