It seemed like with every passing bit of news regarding technological advancements, the lengthening of the story, and various other controversies, Peter Jackson’s return to the works of J.R.R. Tolkein wasn’t quite the same slam dunk it would have been several years ago when he wrapped up the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It seems like everyone – even if they haven’t seen the film – has something positive or negative to say about it. In short, it’s like every other film ever made, but magnified to an almost fever inducing degree. While the start of the prequel cycle to Jackson’s finished series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its glaring visual problems thanks to some intensely ill advised experimentation with 3D, it’s still a faithful and fun telling of what was always lighter Tolkien material to begin with.
Heading back 60 years before the battle for Middle Earth truly began in full force, a younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) becomes the odd-Hobbit-out when he’s essentially forced into going on an adventure by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan). He’s asked to tag along with a band of dwarves – led by the hirsute Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) – to act as a thief in hopes of reclaiming their former mountain home that’s become ruled by blood thirsty orcs.
Covering maybe only a third of Tolkien’s original source material to spread the film across three epically long movies (Journey’s 170 minute running time is roughly how long it takes most people to read the entire novel), there’s a lot of tangential material from the author’s works and some slightly made up stuff thrown in for good measure, but probably the best thing that can be said about the script (which still faintly bears some of the playfulness and darkness of original writer Guillermo del Toro despite getting worked over by Jackson and Fran Walsh) is that it all makes sense now. The pacing of the film overall isn’t very different from Jackson’s other works, and there’s a lot more fleshing out of characters that was only briefly talked of previously.
Much of the film really doesn’t even deal with Bilbo expressly after the set up. Freeman is fine, and we get to see his mental tussling with Gollum (returning Andy Serkis, who also serves as Second Unit Director here), but Jackson often has to find ways to remind the viewer that it’s a Hobbit film after leaving the comfort of The Shire. Instead, the film does a great job on focusing primarily on Thorin’s quest to regain his homeland and birthright, and the difficulties faced by dwarves. Freeman’s great as the younger version of Ian Holm’s older Bilbo, but he only gets the opening and closing of this entry to shine. Armitage, on the other hand, gets to deliver a solid portrayal of a gruff and conflicted warrior on a quest, even if his character seems to just be written as a shorthand surrogate for Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn character.
With a lighter touch than the constant impending dread of the first film, Jackson and company have to work harder to keep seasoned viewers and fans interested while not potentially alienating newcomers. The action moves at a fairly good clip following a somewhat drawn out opening that introduces some characters that don’t really require introductions, and the running time isn’t much of an issue overall. There’s also an appealing “let’s get the band back together” vibe that shines through nicely with appearances from some familiar faces.
But it seems that largely all most people want to talk about at the moment is the now slightly infamous high speed 48 frames-per-second shooting style, and while it isn’t entirely the abomination that some people are making it out to be, it does need to be discussed because this was probably the wrong film to experiment using this technology for.
The statement that watching The Hobbit is like watching something at home on television is totally appropriate. It looks like the BBC version of the same story, but not necessarily in the worst way. Adjustment times for viewers’ eyes may vary and some people will just hate it entire probably because the original films have a decidedly cinematic quality that only film and lower frame rate photography can give. Things move so fast at first that it’s like watching streaming video that looks like it’s dangerously close to going out of sync. It took an hour for me to get used to it, but by that point the story fully took over and it was mostly easy to go along for the ride.
While many can tout what the technology means for cinematography, it seems almost too advanced for old school and new school fantasy film trickery to work. While I think its delightful to see the nooks and crannies of all the make-up effects and the set design, some people might thinks it smacks of artificiality. Despite the clarity of the image, though, the practical effects pop out far better than their digital counterparts this time out.
Not that the digital effects are all that shabby. Gollum has never looked better and a battle between stone giants is undoubtedly a showstopping sequence, but there’s a distinct problem when it comes to motion, which is what the cameras were designed for in the first place. Once there’s a sequence that involves a combination of high speed (like in a chase sequence) and motion with digital effects, the newfound clarity makes the digital effects look so dreadfully fake and shoddy that the seem to have been done in MS Paint. The clarity also botches the little details in close ups that suck the viewer right out of the fantasy. When someone smokes from a pipe in this one, the person digitally crafting the smoke practically sticks out like a boom mic in an improperly framed film.
Peter Jackson has never been particularly lauded for being a digital craftsman. If James Cameron goes ahead in making Avatar 2 with the same technology, he’ll probably have a better go of it now that this film has made its limitations known. Cameron would probably also wait for years to make sure everything with the technology is right. But where Cameron and Jackson differ is in the storytelling department. Jackson can tell a story with a carefully constructed script far better than something Cameron probably wrote years before over a couple of sittings without changing a single word. That particularly noble trait really carries The Hobbit over the finish line. Those who see it outside of a theatre equipped for 48fps will probably be more engaged by the story thanks to the lack of distractions. Much like what Jackson’s returning to the well should have been, it’s time to go a little old school.