Ios film review: The Hobbit

Peter Jackson can't leave Tolkien alone – and the result is long, hairy and tiresome
  • @johnhenrywalsh

Here we go again. Once more into the breach against Orcs and Trolls and Smaugs and Wargs with people called Balin and Dwalin and Biffy and Boffy and Dori and Nori and Bilbo and Dildo, all adventuring to the lost kingdom of Elsinor, no Elrond, no dammit, Erebor, through the mighty plains of Mirkwood, or is it Greenwood, over the Lonely Mountain, across the Pointless Meadow and up the Irrelevant Bypass, telling tales of Queen Gladrags and her struggle with the Goblins of Gollumnia …

You'd have thought that after the mammoth labour of love that was filming The Lord of the Rings in three massive tranches, Peter Jackson might have had enough of J R R Tolkien's Middle-earth saga-bollocks, and the endless litany of interchangeable names. But he's back again, taking the original 1937 story – set 60 years before the events of Rings – and blowing it up to Troll-like proportions, to bulk out three substantial movies.

Size and its relative extremes are a major theme of The Hobbit. The action is driven by dwarves who, despite their size, are titanically brave. The dwarf kingdom they've lost is, counter-intuitively, a massive place, with a gigantic hall full of gold coins. The bad guys they encounter signal their badness by being, not just enormous, but enormously ugly and egregiously vulgar. And the centre of the story is the spiritual journey of Bilbo Baggins, growing from a moral pipsqueak to a moral mensch.

Deploying his puzzled-innocent frown, Martin Freeman plays him well, as a meekly complacent little bourgeois, happy to stay in his snug hobbitty world, where his house is a round, wooden womb and his main occupations are wearing fancy waistcoats and smoking a clay pipe.

He's shaken out of this torpor by Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) who comes looking for someone to join 13 dwarves on their quest to reclaim their kingdom. It's unclear whether they're simply after the gold they were forced to abandon when the dragon Smaug moved in, which sounds rather mercenary of them. But one's at-best-mild interest in the plot evaporates with the arrival of the dwarves.

They're small but appallingly hairy. Hair sprouts profusely from their cheeks, chins, noses and ears and is plaited, looped, braided and fantastically garlanded all over their heads. From their gurning faces issue recognisable voices, belonging to James Nesbitt, Ken Stott and Aidan Turner among others, but none is called on to act except Richard Armitage who plays Thorin Oakenshield, hair apparent to the Erebor throne. The others just roll about, making themselves noisily at home, eating Bilbo's food (luckily his larder is stacked like the kitchens of the Ritz), shouting, belching and being, you know, life-affirming scamps and rascals.

It was here, 20 minutes into the film, that I first wondered if I could escape. The prospect of spending five more minutes, let alone 140, with this irritating mash-up of The Pirates of the Caribbean and the Bash Street Kids, their tiresome horseplay overseen by McKellen's puckish smirk, made my heart sink.

Things improve when the dwarves set out on those meandering journeys over picturesque landscapes with which we became overfamiliar in The Lord of the Rings. At least we get some good villains. The trolls are huge, putty-coloured ogres, keen on eating horses and men; they speak, for some reason, like dim, working-class Londoners. The orcs have bald heads, terrible teeth and scarified weals on their chests like white Zulus, and they ride slavering wolves; their king, voiced by Barry Humphries, is a really disgusting figure with a long floppy chin like a flesh saddlebag. But they never seem to offer Bilbo and his pals any mortal threat – they can be killed off by sunlight, or a well-aimed catapult.

More attractive are the inhabitants of Rivendell, the elf kingdom: long, epicene, bloodless figures led by Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) in ironed hair and a tiara. Conspicuous among them is Lady Galadriel, who's a member of the White Council – not some offshoot of Ukip, but the star chamber of Middle-earth – together with Gandalf and Saruman (Christopher Lee, resembling a pedigree saluki that's been ill-advisedly exhumed). Cate Blanchett, the only woman in the movie, plays Galadriel in a long sleek white frock and a somnambulistic trance. She talks to Gandalf telepathically – surely not a tactic to endear her to the other council members.

The battles are spectacular, protracted and exciting, up to a point; after a while the CGI stuff blurs before your eyes, as if you're watching a video game. Once, when Gandalf and the dwarves were running along a rope walkway, sweeping orcs into the chasm below, my thumbs twitched as though I was at home playing Crash Bandicoot. But there's something technically wrong with the whole movie.

As everyone knows, The Hobbit is the first film to be shot in high frame rate 3D, at 48 frames per second rather than 24. But 3D apart, it looks as though it's been shot with a video camera, without that lovely celluloid sheen of 70mm film. This is disastrous: the acting, the dialogue, even the external shots all come across as coarse, unfiltered realism, with all the drama leached away. You see everything on screen more clearly than you've ever seen it before – but is that what you want in a fantasy? What you don't see, in any sense, is a film to love, or lose yourself in.

Critic's Choice

The black humour never lets up in Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s startling comedy-thriller follow-up to In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell. And there’s still time to catch Jennifer Lawrence proving her mettle opposite Bradley Cooper in the enjoyably gritty Silver Linings Playbook.