Verdict: Four out of five stars. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast, and The Hobbit is an epic, awe-inspiring tale, with sometimes astonishing CGI, that is full of heart. But it is at least an hour too long, and the much touted technology that made the film at 48 frames per second (fps) often works against the film instead. Teeters dangerously close to self-indulgence in parts.  

The Hobbit, Martin Freeman

Bilbo kept thinking that he had left something behind at the Shire. ©New Line Cinema

“It began long ago, in a land far away to the east”,  says an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) as he begins  his memoirs. His nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) is about to embark on a dangerous journey too, but it was 60 years ago that Bilbo himself went on a remarkable quest. Then, he went to help reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug, in the company of 13 dwarves led by the embittered, battle-hardened Thorin Oakenshield (the highly impressive Richard Armitage) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).
Seen purely in movie terms, this is essentially the backstory to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and how Bilbo came to possess the one Ring. But this is a very different movie from the three LOTR films, and it takes its time (it really, really does) getting into the story proper. “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure,” says Gandalf. And what an adventure it turns out to be for the soft-spoken and retiring Bilbo.
The Hobbit, Gandalf, Ian McKellen

Gandalf consistently won the award for Best Hair in Middle Earth ©New Line Cinema

Here’s where the trouble starts: before the adventure can begin, director Peter Jackson has to spend an awfully.long.time telling the story of the pre-adventure. To be fair, The Hobbit has a cast full of richly realised, colorful, larger than life characters , though you will struggle to recall the dwarves’ names. Besides Gandalf, familiar favourites such as Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the not-yet-sinister Saruman (Christopher Lee) are also back.
But the first hour turns into an ordeal, with painstakingly detailed backstories, dinner scenes and yes, even songs. At 2 hrs 44 mins, The Hobbit feels more like the extended DVD edition, and is about an hour too long. On a personal level, it feels pretty telling that I can remember watching all three LOTR movies in the theatre (each of which were also three hours long), and never feeling that any of them overstayed their welcome.
Perhaps The Hobbit’s biggest liability is the much vaunted 48 fps, double the frame rate at which a movie is normally shot. The experts say the effect is akin to watching a movie through a window, as opposed to a camera lens. But in practice, the effect is more jarring and jerky than awesome. Admittedly, everything is thrown into sharp relief, but it is much too sharp for its own good. This means that when our heroes are standing in lushly realised CGI landscapes,  the background ends up looking fake. Characters also seem to be moving at cartoon speed at times, as if in some 1930s silent film.
The Hobbit, dwarves

Meet Middle Earth’s biggest boy band.  ©New Line Cinema

But there is much to admire about The Hobbit. Danger lies around every corner, from orcs to wargs to rock monsters (shades of Guillermo del Toro’s contribution, who had originally been slated to direct The Hobbit). Not to mention the greatest danger of all: the slinking, creeping, crawling Gollum (Andy Serkis).  When he finally makes his appearance two hours in, it is as a familiarly malevolent, mewling presence that hides in the dark and feeds on creatures that fall into his hidey hole.
And the confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum is well worth waiting for. The improvements in technology since 2004 are such that the motion capture is virtually flawless, and this is where the 48 fps works best. If you thought Gollum was disturbed in LOTR, he is positively psychotic, and every sneer and snarl is captured in stunning detail.
The Hobbit, Gollum

Gollum didn’t quite understand the concept of nudity. ©New Line Cinema

But if there is one character who makes the movie, it is Freeman a.k.a Dr John Watson. He is a revelation as Bilbo, the very definition of courage. He is by turns diffident, soft spoken and introverted, yet Bilbo never becomes a part of the background. Terrified of the circumstances around him and desperately longing for home, yet somehow finding the strength within to act, he emerges as the undoubted hero of the story. As Bilbo quietly intones:  “I would have doubted me too. I’m not a hero or a warrior.” Maybe not, but there is no doubt that he is a star.

So which was more awesome: LOTR or The Hobbit? My money’s still on LOTR. 

Addendum: I checked with a techie colleague, and he tells me that the cartoonish movements of the characters at times may have been due to a projector issue. He watched it in 3D at another cinema and the movement looked fine. It should be noted that the 35mm version of The Hobbit is also available at other theatres in Singapore (I watched it at Lido).