James Helsby

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Review

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Millions upon Millions of eager fans will be lining up, freezing (not really), huddled for warmth (not really), and willing to kill (not really) as they clamber inside tightly packed (only for a day or so) theaters, waiting in anticipation (ehh.) for the release to screen of the Peter Jackson adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s classic, The Hobbit.  Finally shown on the big screen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will inspire some audiences, blending perfectly into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and for others it will seem all too familiar.

It’s been a long time coming, that is for sure. Ever since the first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released in 2001; film goers have been scratching at the walls, waiting for The Hobbit to be recreated in the same ilk. It took multiple directors, including the visually impact-ful Guillermo del Toro, and eventually settling with Peter Jackson, before the film was released. It went through the usual stages of ‘Production Hell’ taking in total almost 17 years for the rights to the film to be cleared and production to actually be started.

Jackson, who shot to fame and common knowledge, because of his amazing adaptation of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, had a long established career prior to the first film release, in 2001. Frightener’s not withstanding, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (LOTR), consisting of The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003) set a new benchmark in for long format film making, the likes of which had not been seen since Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Sure some films have clocked in at a greater length (the current longest running film is ‘Logistics’ at 857hrs, and is still screening), most long-form films are considered to be ‘art-house’ or highly independent. LOTR with a combined running time of 683 minutes, showed that given the right incentive, audiences would be willing to sit through hours-upon-hours of men in green tights, helicopter panorama shots, and CGI eyeballs glaring out of the screen.

But the LOTR stands on its own feet. It was a fantastic series of films, brought to life in a new and unique way. The LOTR trilogy of books represented some 1200 pages of original source material to work with, and if you have ever actually read it (I have) it feels closer to 3000. It’s long. And yes, I know I alienate some readers with that remark. That was part of the of mystique of Tolkien, his amazing descriptive language was powerful enough to conjure of worlds in his readers minds. Powerful enough to spawn a spoken language. How many authors can really say that?

The Hobbit was the first popular Tolkien book. It was a scant 320 pages. Once the films development hell was broken, production on the film began. Production, on one film. That film was then expanded into two films. Those two films were then expanded into three films. Jackson, being an innovator in both the visual and the digital, also decided to use some very new technologies to help bring the story of Bilbo Baggins to life; and while in some respect those technologies worked, in others they fell short.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will inspire some audiences, blending perfectly into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for others it will seem all too familiar. My opening statement must be explained, but first a little intro to the film.

Set just prior to Bilbo Baggins (Sir Ian Holm) Eleventy-First birthday, Bilbo opens the film sitting down to write the story of his adventures. A familiar Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) strolls in to find Bilbo working at his desk. We flash back to Bag-End, some 60 years prior, where a much younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is sitting in front of Bag End puffing on some pipe-weed. Along comes a tall man, dressed in grey… Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Gandalf and Bilbo have a very awkward conversation about the importance of the word ‘good’ in the statement ‘good morning,’ and we start rolling forward.

Soon, Bag End is filled with Dwarves; Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and Thorin. The dwarves ravage the food stores of Bag End, and lay into rather comical song and dance numbers while juggling pots, pans, and dishes all through the hobbit hole. Never once dropping so much as a fork. Eventually Bilbo is coerced into an adventure of the most epic nature. The dwarves are attempting to re-take their ancient home of Erebor, lost when the great and powerful dragon, Smaug invaded and laid claim to the gold hidden there in. Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to the dwarves and hobbit, a Necromancer (human with dark magic) has conjured something great and evil back from death.

The troop sets out on their quest, and from this point it all becomes much too familiar.

You see, the problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is three fold; artistic, acting, and technological. Technologically speaking, one of the biggest enhancements and caveats to the film is the use of 48fps cinematography. If you aren’t familiar with the term, that means that the source footage was shot at 48 frames per second. Most films up to this point have been shot either digitally, or using 24fps. Special cameras were used, and likewise special projectors need to be used in order to show film at that speed. Doubling the number of frames, doubles the speed that a given second of film is captured. 1 second of film is captured across 48 consecutive frames, providing a huge jump in clarity and crispness to each second.

But this jump in technology has its downside too. In fact, our press screening was originally supposed to take place at one theater in the Salt Lake valley, but when the projector at that theater failed the night before the screening, we were moved to a completely different theater, at very short notice. It all worked out, because in the end it was one of the newest and most comfortable screens I have ever been privileged to sit in front of. (Thanks Megaplex 17, errr. 19).

The 48fps does bring the clarity and crispness out in the shots. The landscape of the filming location (New Zealand) was amazing. Green, bright, vivid, lush, just wonderful to look at. If Jackson ever fails as a big-budget director, he should pursue nature photography. But the 48fps poses a big problem for digital effects. Whether it be that the rendering was done incorrectly, or was just not reviewed well, there were large amounts of irritation in the quality of those digital effects. Primarily, effects that were in motion were obvious and not convincing.

In a day and age of film production, where digital and real blend themselves together seamlessly, it was very disappointing and jarring to be able to spot clearly a digital effect. Of particular point were flames and fast-motion. Flames were the most obvious one. For instance, during the scene in Bag End, there are two juxtaposed flames. One still and serene;  a real candle burning on a holder. The flame small, yellow and gentle. That candle sat next to a veritable forest fire, burning in the hearth. Flames whipping around, raging like it had just been poured with gasoline. The flames had no weight to them. They seemed to cast no light, nor shadow. Yet those flames moved much too fast to be real. They stood out like a sore thumb, just slammed in a door.

Also, during a scene in which the Warg Riders were chasing down Radagast the Brown, none of the characters on screen felt real. They seemed to jump from frame to frame. To my eye, it looked like they had been digitally created at 24fps, but then double-framed to 48. It’s hard to explain the effect, but it would seem like they moved too fast for the frame. Like they had no gravity, no weight in life. Like picking up a foam brick that looks totally realistic. You visually expect it to weigh a few pounds, but are shocked to feel it weighs almost nothing. It changes your perspective to look at it again; no longer does the brick look real. The Warg Riders trot around the screen, pivoting from spot to spot, without faltering or digging in. Only Radagast’s sled leaves a mark on the screen, and that especially feels fake.

The last and most apparent technical ramification of the 48fps, is the use of green sets, and digital mattes. Special Effects are expensive. The time, and energy necessary to build them, color them, render them, and put them on film, is a costly endeavor. But sometimes you need to film something in a location that doesn’t actually exist. Enter digital sets. A sound stage is setup and decorated just as normal, but a green backdrop is used, and later the backgrounds or various elements in the shot can be laid in with computers. This can work great in some respects, but often it is just a matter of convenience. Sometimes, real care and attention to details are used, but other times not. Unfortunately, those digital backgrounds really stand out as fake in The Hobbit.

One particular scene has Galdalf standing in Rivendell talking with Lady Galadriel on a veranda, overlooking the great waterfalls. Whether it be because of the 48fps, or poor effects specialists,  there is a hard-edge to the sets, that doesn’t match the tone of the backdrop. Again it is something difficult to explain with words, and much easier to point out in film, but the set seems to be standing in front of the backdrops, not in front of space. The depth of the shot is cut down by the use of in-focus backdrops, which under normal visual conditions couldn’t exist. The backdrops seem only about 5 feet behind, and not the thousands of feet that they should be.

The artistic problems are largely due to the source material and writing. The book was only 320 pages long, as I mentioned earlier. That 320 pages is being spaced out into 3 films, 3 hours each. 9 hours of film. Even a moderate reader could probably finish the entire book, before the entire trilogy would finish. A glacier pace of a film that has led to some scenes being prolonged, and some scenes being added. Now, I am not a Tolkien fan, and the reason is because I always found Tolkien to be slow because of the time it takes to describe a scene. It reads well enough, but when you can capture the entirety of the description in just a single second or image, you end up with these long sequences of nothing but eye-candy, in order to fill time.

The film is too slow. Fight scenes seem to carry on forever, and there are so many of the recognizable Peter Jackson helicopter panorama shots, that you are left with a feeling of slight boredom at times. It’s great and all, very visual, but oh so slow in places. Still, those 3 hours seem like 2. But it’s an ass-hurting 2 hours.

And then there is the other problem. The one that really bothered me. I have seen this movie before. In all likelihood, so have you. It was called, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Sure, some scenes are new, the actors are different, the plot is different, but the timing is the same. The camera work is the same. The sequences are the same. The events are the same. If you known The Fellowship of the Ring well enough, you will probably spot the similarities too. It felt more like recycled footage, left on the floor from the first movie than something new an original.

Acting. This is a hard one for me to admit, but the acting was great. With one exception. Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. I was all set to love this, being a Freeman fan. I was ready for Freeman to be whom I mentally recalled when I thought of Bilbo. But no. Freeman, who you may remember from the new Sherlock Holmes tv series on BBC as John Watson, or Arthur Dent in the 2005’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, was not Bilbo Baggins. No, instead it was just Martin Freeman. There was no acting, no character traits that were unique to Bilbo, no modifications from the wonderful ‘befuddled’ Freeman we get in Sherlock or Hitchhikers. I was disappointed in this greatly. This was not Ian Holm’s character, only younger. This was Martin Freeman in costume, and nothing more.

Finally, before my review becomes too scathing, was the Dwarves. Other than Thoren, I would challenge you to identify any of them by name/sight. So little time is given to the other characters, that unless you took queue cards with you, it would be an endeavor to recall who does what. It ended up being the Snow-White dwarves. There was the happy one, the old one, the fat one, the young one, the strong one, the brothers, and Thoren.

Despite all the rambling remarks about what was bad; the film itself was great. No, Really. I enjoyed it a lot. It was a perfect journey back into the Lord of the Rings universe. It laid itself into the original and established film-series mythos, without leaving you identifying too many inconsistencies. (other than Orcs being different, goblins being different, the ring discovery, floppy feet, swords not glowing, and a few others.) The Hobbit was much more an adult movie, with its now PG-13 rating (it was still unrated at the time of our viewing), it was much more adult than what I was expecting from a childrens story. Decapitations and disembowelment aside, it seemed perfectly suited to the young teen crowd. You know, the ones with money. But the adults will fill the theaters also.

It was worth seeing. It is worth seeing in the theaters. I would even say it is worth seeing in IMAX 3d. Don’t wait for the film to come to bluray, or DVD. If you enjoyed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will be like a trip down memory lane. And luckily, that isn’t an unexpected result.

How much alcohol did it take: It was 10am on a Wednesday. ZERO
Rating: 6.5/10. It was good. Really good. It wasn’t great. 48fps has its technical challenges to face, but this movie should be seen in theaters

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