Peter Jackson, right, with actor Martin Freeman on the set of <i>The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey</i>.

Two hobbits: Peter Jackson and Martin Freeman.

JOURNALISTS are not supposed to tell their stories in chronological order. We’re supposed to start with the most interesting detail, and later explain how it came about. So I hope my students and colleagues will forgive me for telling this tale in the order it happened, to background you on how I became Australia’s greatest living geek on the subject of Peter Jackson’s movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and why I can advise you on appropriate viewing behaviour.

It was advertised as a 2pm session of The Hobbit in 3D, but at 2.20pm the curtains still have not opened and the audience (200 people) are getting antsy. A spotty youth enters the cinema and says: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are having some technical difficulties.  We should be able to start the movie in about ten minutes, and when we do we will go straight to feature. We won’t show any of the ads.”

Audience cheers. Ten minutes later a young woman enters the cinema and says: “Ladies and gentleman. We would like to apologise. We will be unable to show you the Hobbit in 3D today. We can only show you the 2D version.” Audience groans and takes off 3D glasses.

A giant Gollum sculpture looms over the public at Wellington Airport.

The Gollum cult at Wellington Airport. Photo: Getty Images

Somehow the projector has shed an entire dimension. But while there is none of the third dimension, there is more than enough of the fourth.

Three hours later, as the end-credits start to roll, the lights go up and the young woman returns with this announcement: “We will give everybody a refund on their ticket and a complimentary pass to any movie in this complex.” Plus we can keep the glasses. Audience cheers and starts discussing whether they should see The Hobbit again or use the pass for Les Miserables. It’s a PR coup for Hoyts.

Next day I use my pass to attend the 10.30am session of The Hobbit in 3D. There are only 22 people in the cinema. Curtains open promptly, and over the next 28 minutes we are shown five trailers, two of which are for the same movie (Zero Dark Thirty), and 22 ads, which are very loud, presumably to enable a rush of relief when the movie proves to be slightly softer.

Peter Jackson on the set of the last film in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, <i>The Return of the King</i>.

First time around Photo: Reuters

Driving back from the multiplex, I drop in on my local video store and tell the man on the desk “I’ve just been to see The Hobbit …” He interrupts: “… And you want to compare it with Lord of the Rings?” Yes. “The extended directors cut?” I guess so. “In Blu-Ray?” Yes. “That’s the only way to see it! Have a good time.”

The Fellowship of the Ring box-set contains five discs, but to my relief only two of them involve the actual movie, now stretched to four hours. I spent the past week watching it, and also the extended director’s cuts of Two Towers and Return of the King. Based on 17 hours of research, here are my answers to your questions …

Is 3D better than 2D? Every good story deserves embellishment, says Frodo, and Peter Jackson obviously agrees. But for me, this particular form of 3D diminishes rather than embellishes the story. Some scenes look like episodes of South Park, with flat cardboard figures moving about two metres in front of a flat cardboard landscape. And it’s too dark. In 2D the hobbit hole has a warm glow, while in 3D it has a stark sharpness.  The extra dimension was essential to Avatar, and helpful in Hugo, but with The Hobbit it’s an annoyance.

Life of Pi

Life of Pi: Smarter use of 3D

Is The Hobbit more entertaining than Fellowship of the Ring? Fellowship had emotional complexity, from the joy of the opening party to the despair of Gandalf’s fall into shadow, from the passion of Aragorn and Arwen to the agony of Frodo’s stabbing. The Hobbit has only humour and suspense, plus a brief moment of male bonding.

To add emotional depth, Jackson needed to kill or seriously wound a couple of the dwarves (most of them are pretty annoying anyway). It’s absurd that every character goes through battles and avalanches and bridge-collapses with barely a scratch. Perhaps Jackson was seeking to appeal to a younger audience, but he leaves adult viewers unsatisfied. (If you’re looking for emotional manipulation, try Les Miserables, but carry a big box of tissues.)

So should I just wait for the DVD? No, you need to see The Hobbit in a crowded cinema. It’s delightful to hear the buzz as the kids realise Gollum is about to appear, and to join the laughter at Martin Freeman’s double-takes.

MasterChef.

The trolls

What’s the pop culture reference this time? In Fellowship, Gimli shouts “Nobody tosses a dwarf!”. In Two Towers, Legolas uses his shield as a skateboard. They fit the context, but deliver a bonus chuckle. In The Hobbit, we get the MasterChef trolls, debating whether the umami of spit-roasted dwarf would be boosted with a touch of sage. You don’t need to look too closely to identify Matt, George and Gary.

How many times do we hear the line “I think we’re safe now”, only to have something worse happen? I lost count. But it has become Peter Jackson’s signature trope, just as George Lucas is identified with “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”.

If I'm only seing one film these holidays, should it be Life of Pi, The Hobbit or Les Miserables? Definitely Life of Pi, but only if you can see it in 3D. Ang Lee uses the extra dimension playfully, to emphasise the surreality of the story.

Will The Hobbit be as popular as the original trilogy? As you can see from the table below, the three Rings films are among the ten biggest moneymakers of all time in Australia (they’re also among our 20 top selling DVDs of all time). Fellowship sold 5 million tickets in 2001, when average admission price was $9. To match it, The Hobbit will need to make $80 million, at the current average ticket price of $17.

In its first eight days, The Hobbit made $22 million. Will it get the repeat business and word-of-mouth to quadruple that by the end of its run? This column's first foolish prediction for 2013: That’s not going to happen. Not even close. What do you reckon?

THE ALL-TIME AUSTRALIAN BOX OFFICE (to December 31, 2012)

  1. Avatar (2010) $115.6 million
  2. Titanic (1997) $57.6m
  3. The Avengers (2012) $53.3m
  4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) $52.6m
  5. Shrek 2 (2004) $50.4m
  6. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) $49.4m
  7. Crocodile Dundee (1986) $47.7m
  8. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) $47.4m
  9. The Dark Knight (2008) $46.1m
  10. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) $45.6m

For twice weekly box office and analysis of everything cinematic, you should try the excellent urbancinefile.

For the top 100 ticket sellers of all time, go to The Tribal Mind Archive.

You have just read the Who We Are column, by David Dale. It appears in printed form every Sunday in The Sun-Herald, and also as a blog on this website, where it welcomes your comments. David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia -- A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.