I never read Lord Of The Rings but did do The Hobbit at school — "in days of old when knights were bold," to quote Robert Plant, who's rather embarrassed about such lyrics these days. "And magic filled the air" — long enough ago for me to have forgotten most of it. So, I'm judging The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on purely cinematic merit.
My principal criticism is one I level generally at such epics — that for all the technical wizardry and sweeping vistas, sometimes less is more, the obsession with detail coming at the expense of the dramatic staples of character and plot. We know how it goes — big bucks necessitates big return, big return means global mainstream audience, global mainstream audience requires visual shock and awe (or so the thinking goes). And thus does Tolkein's book about little furry people go Wagnerian.
Where I found the first LOTR film quite enchanting, the second and third outings, for me, became a bit "so what?" I mean, after the umpteenth battle between dwarves, orcs and blah-di-blah, who really cares? It's exactly the same gripe with The Hobbit, but all in one movie. It has slaughter on an industrial scale yet still pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of leaving one strangely detached from the action and, curiously, never once feeling that any of our heroes is remotely in peril.
Despite some fine acting, at nearly three hours, and with a damp squib of a pay-off, the "unexpected journey" feels more of an aimless potter after a liquid lunch. As ever with these things, the best bits are the personal moments, Bilbo's verbal sparring with slippery Gollum worth a hundred Orc-ish eviscerations.
And yes, the format. I have an issue with 3D generally in that the current system is a bolt-on — a techno-gizmo retro-fitted to a hundred-year-old system, that of projecting a 2D image onto a blank canvas. Until a new method of exhibiting a film comes along — sitting in a pod? wearing virtual reality helmets? — it will always feel like a weld-job. As has been reported elsewhere, the pin-sharp resolution of 48 frames per seconds makes some of the scenes, particularly the indoor ones, appear like workaday television.
More than that, I still have a problem with both foreground and background being in focus simultaneously, something that contravenes the laws of physics. I found myself actually shutting one eye for much of it (add joke here). But that's just me.
There was a general consensus among the broadsheet reviewers for this film, a feeling of deflation. I think they got it just about right.