THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
**** (out of 5)
December 14, 2012
Ian McKellen as GANDALF
Martin Freeman as BILBO
Richard Armitage as THORIN
Andy Serkis as GOLLUM
Hugo Weaving as ELROND
Cate Blanchett as GALADRIEL
Christopher Lee as SARUMAN
Directed by: Peter Jackson
BY KEVIN CARR
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While I’ve been a fan of various movie franchises like “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Harry Potter” and the Marvel superhero films, I was never a die-hard fan of “The Lord of the Rings.” Those aren’t bad movies. It’s just that I never read the books growing up, and I felt them to be driven by the fans of the series. I suppose that’s a good thing to get a faithful adaptation, but I always wished for something a little more lean.
Still, I enjoyed all three “Lord of the Rings” movies to a degree. I feel this is something I need to point out at the forefront of this review just to let you know where I stand. I’m not a fanboy when it comes to Tolkien’s work, but I’m also not rejecting it.
Strangely enough, I come to “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” with a little more pre-knowledge than I had with “The Lord of the Rings.” Sure, there were those three films, but before that, I remember watching the Rankin-Bass animated television film in 1977. It wasn’t a fantastic film, but it was interesting enough, and it was a nice way to be introduced to the source material as a child. It was more digestible than Richard Bakshi’s “The Lord of the Rings” animated film, and it gave the best look at fantasy that the 70s could offer.
I was, of course, expecting something closer to “The Lord of the Rings” films with Peter Jackson at the helm again. And as critical as I can be about those three movies, it does seem that Jackson was born to direct them. Putting him in charge of “The Hobbit” seems to be the right choice on the whole, as does bringing back many of the same actors to reprise their roles from Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as the lead to Frodo (Elijah Wood) in a minor character cameo.
I’m still not sold on splitting the relatively short story into three entire movies, but more on that as the next two installments come out. Let’s just take “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” for what it is: an introduction… a near-three-hour introduction, but an introduction nonetheless.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” sees Bilbo Baggins (Martin Henderson) as a young hobbit recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a cadre of dwarves to help them take their kingdom back from a deadly dragon. The group heads out on its quest, fighting orcs and goblins along the way, and getting help from the kingdom of elves.
Okay, I’ll admit, it’s a thin plot, but it’s just a third of the entire saga. It has as much direct plot to me as “The Fellowship of the Ring” did, and that one just ended in the middle of the story to be continued in “The Two Towers.”
Do not go into “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” expecting something concise, fast-moving or complete. A good chunk of the film is spent in exposition and superfluous information. As I understand it, Jackson took many elements from the Tolkien’s extended appendices to fill the movie. In fact, a good twenty minutes pass before we even get to the first page of the novel. And after that, another twenty minutes pass before the quest leaves the Shire.
I wouldn’t exactly call “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” long-winded as it seems to be relatively well-paced for a Tolkien film under Jackson’s control. There are quite a few scenes that run long, and many talking moments that could easily have been trimmed.
However, the action is solid, and the effects are awesome. With a decade of digital evolution since the last set of films, this is easily the best-looking Tolkien movie yet.
Not all the scenes are necessary, and a great deal of the movie is set-up, with Jackson reveling in his own return to Middle Earth. But it’s an enjoyable experience. At the very least, it has made me want to revisit the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with less dread as that Blu-ray Extended Edition’s 12-hour running time stares me in the face.
And then there’s that issue of the high frame rate (HFR). Jackson shot the film with 48 frames per second, which is double the normal 24 frames per seconds. There’s been expensive conversions in digital theaters to prepare for this, and the reviews of the HFR presentation have been rough at best.
I had the opportunity to see the film both ways, and the 24fps standard projection is the best way to see it. The images are still crisp, and the detail is quite amazing. In fact, with the exception of “Life of Pi,” “The Hobbit” at 24fps is probably the best looking 3D I’ve seen all year.
But that doesn’t mean that the HFR is a waste of time and money. Yes, it gives a very strong video look to the picture. I’m reluctant to call this the popularized term “soap opera look” because that implies it looks cheap. And this film looks anything but cheap. But it does look like video, especially for the real filmed elements.
Oddly enough, in comparison, the full CGI elements look better because they’re fully mastered in a computer. Gollum looks great. The orcs look fantastic. The goblins looks awesome. And the full CGI sets look as brilliant as can be.
It’s the real elements that suffer, and if you have a problem with the movie looking like a $150 million BBC special from the 70s, you’ll want to avoid this version.
However, there are shots and scenes where the HFR makes the film look superior. This happens with grand, sweeping shots or moments of intense action. The HFR reduces the double-image of a sweeping pan to almost nothing, and several scenes have a lot of action happening on screen that is much clearer and crisp than the standard 24fps projection can handle.
So, is the HFR version of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” perfect? Not by a long shot. But it’s the first time it’s been done. With other filmmakers – including James Cameron with the sure-to-be mostly CGI “Avatar” sequels – ramping up to do HFR films, there’s a lot of potential. Like the 3D conversions that looked awful on the onset but now look pretty slick, this HFR technology is in its infancy and could become the wave of the future. It’s just not at that point yet.