The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – You’re going on an adventure
Before I begin on the good, the bad and the ugly technical achievements in this film, I first want to talk about how much giddy fun I had watching The Hobbit magically come to life and ‘out-Jones’ every Indiana Jones picture and ‘out-war’ any of the Star Wars movies. In fact, the only movies that could hold a candle to the scope of this epic adventure flick are its own previously made sequels (Pre-sequels?), the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
For the uninitiated (if such a person exists), The Hobbit is set 60 years before the events in director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (also based on the Tolkien novels The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King) where an unlikely band of companions (including Hobbits, Men, Dwarves and Elves) save the fantasy world of Middle-earth from the evil Dark Lord Sauron (AKA The Lord of the Rings).
The Hobbit is the story of a company of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the son of their King, who are on a journey to the Lonely Mountain to recapture their homeland and treasure that was taken from them by the great dragon, Smaug. The group is being guided by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who brings the burly band to the home of the Hobbit and tries to enlist his help.
Hobbits are good-natured earthy creatures described by Tolkien as being half our height with large hairy feet that are perfect for moving stealthily through the woods. The ability to “disappear quickly and quietly” is what makes Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) the perfect “burglar” to assist the dwarves on their quest, where they believe those skills will come in handy.
If you’ve never read any of the Tolkien books, then it won’t matter to you that director Peter Jackson, together with his writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (who was once attached to direct The Hobbit) have tapped the Lord of the Ring appendixes and embellished story details in order to better connect this new movie with the previously filmed trilogy. But if you are familiar with the books, you might scratch your head more than once regarding some of the elements in An Unexpected Journey. It’s this expansion of the story that has made The Hobbit into a planned 3-film collection, versus just one or two movies.
So with Jackson’s attempt to connect the two trilogy sets, in The Hobbit you will see several cameo appearances of characters that did not appear in The Hobbit book, including Saruman (Christopher Lee), Frodo (Elijah Wood), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and especially Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who has quite a substantial role in the new movie, but who was only barely mentioned in the Tolkien novel.
But far & away my favorite piece of this film is the battle of wits between Bilbo and Gollum. The evil but ultimately sympathetic creature played in performance-capture by Andy Serkis (who was also a second-unit director on this film) is absolutely incredible. It saddens me to know that this is the last time we will see this character and the performance by Serkis and his respective computer animators is as good, or better, than any conventional acting work I’ve seen this year. It’s time for Hollywood to give up an Oscar for performance-capture acting.
The other performance that is deserving of Academy Award attention is Ian McKellen’s Gandalf. Like the Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln, I was completely captivated every time this actor was on screen and he completely and convincingly disappears into his character. Amidst the chaos that Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves in, every time Gandalf appears I felt like the little Hobbit himself, calmed and reassured that everything would be okay. I could watch McKellen in this role all day long.
A vital component of this film is its dwarves, all thirteen of them, and although we don’t get to know them as well as we’d like, at least for this first of three acts, they are a cool bunch of characters. I don’t think there is any way possible that Jackson could have focused more on individual traits and character development without having a thirteen hour movie (as opposed to its already 166 minute running time), so all things considered the company of dwarves is well cast and a lot of fun to watch working together.
Everyone who has ever read The Hobbit book has a picture in their mind of what the hesitant little titular hero would be like, and although the way in which Martin Freeman portrays Bilbo is slightly more stoic than what I had imagined he would be, I still liked the actor in this part and I’m looking forward to seeing his transformation as the journey continues through the next two pictures.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is easily one of the greatest epic adventure films ever made and I can’t wait to see the next two installments, The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014). There are a couple of missteps that I’ll get into below, and it’s hard to determine whether they are the fault of the filmmakers or the technology (I’ll update this review after I have a chance to see the film again in regular 2D format), but there is no arguing that this movie has a lot of heart, edge-of-your-seat excitement and is a technological marvel. Grade: 9/10
The Hobbit in High Frame Rate 3D (HFR 3D) – The Hobbit was photographed using new 3D film technology where the action is shot and played back at 48 fps (frames per second) vice the usual 24 fps that is typically used for motion pictures. The idea is that 48 fps functions more closely to the way the human eye operates and thus will deliver a crisper 3D image.
The Hobbit is actually a pretty good choice to try this grand experiment for the first time in that the action takes place in another world, so maybe it is easier to forgive the hyper-natural way in which the technique makes the picture look. It’s very rare that I actually like the use of 3D in any film as it typically makes the picture dark & muddy and the payoff is just not worth wearing the goofy glasses for two hours.
The Good: There are certainly moments in The Hobbit that make the HFR experience worthwhile and the picture is in fact more crisp, clear and realistic than in the standard 3D format. Usually the more motionless pieces work better than those with lots of action, but there are a couple of intense action sequences that make the HFR admission price worthwhile. In particular the battle of the Stone Giants worked amazingly well, with entire mountains moving towards you and throwing boulders your way. Very cool.
For the most part the battle and escape within the goblin caverns works very well in 3D also, and the beautiful scenery of the Elven city of Rivendell is eye-popping amazing; but as mentioned earlier, for me the best part of the film, both in dramatic content as well as technical achievement, is the entire sequence with Bilbo and Gollum. In 3D, it really felt as though you were in the same room (cave) with this hideous, pitiful creature.
The Bad: My biggest issue with the new HFR 3D format is that there are several sporadic places throughout the film in which the action seems to be in fast-motion, just small sections mind you, but enough to make it irritating. My theory is that it is an equipment problem, either when the footage was shot initially or while it is being played back. If parts were accidentally recorded at, say, 40 fps, then played at 48 fps, it will look like the action is in fast-motion. Or it could just be that the playback projector cannot consistently play at 48 fps, I don’t know, but if this cannot be resolved to show the action at a consistent normal speed, then Bag End we have a problem.
The Ugly: There is a sequence in the middle of this movie where Radagast the Brown is baiting a band of orcs away from the group of dwarves by having them chase his rabbit-pulled sleigh across some Middle-earth prairie. I don’t know if it was the 3D, the HFR, or what, but the entire sequence was terribly crafted and looked like something out of the H.R. Pufnstuf TV show from the seventies instead of from a state-of-the-art multi-million dollar modern film. In the context of this otherwise beautiful movie it was completely out of place. I really can’t believe that with as much attention to detail as was paid in this movie this scene was allowed to stand as is. I really hope it looks better in 2D.
Another issue is that at almost three hours in length, the 3D affect and the glasses became very tiresome and a strain on my eyes, which is troublesome because reducing eye strain was supposed to be one of the benefits of this new technology.
In the End: Whether you see The Hobbit in 3D, HFR 3D, or standard 2D, you’re in for a unique and wonderful film experience. Its good far outweighs its bad and makes it easy to forgive its technical glitches and somewhat meandering narrative. I can’t wait to see it again (but next time will be in 2D.)