“In a whole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It’s been over nine years for that phrase to grace movie screens after the towering triumphs of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films. Despite all the legal wrangling to get ‘Hobbit’ to the screen; looking back on ‘Rings’ it is still surprising the films ever got made; especially in the way they were.
Studio taking a chance on a property that common sense said could never be done, a director who despite an Oscar nomination was still known as ‘The Prince of Splatter’, and an unprecedented budget and schedule of shooting a trilogy all at once.
It sounds as unbelievable as the fantastical world of Middle Earth; but it was all true. But now we dive back into Middle Earth with ‘The Hobbit’.
I’ll say upfront I’m not going to judge or try to hit too hard on the merits or detriments (artistic or business) of breaking the book into three parts. I’m going to be as balanced as I can and judge the film on it’s own rather than “they should have done this”, “the book is small so it could have been one film” comments I’m seeing crop up as reviews across the negative spectrum.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” begins with a bookend of old Bilbo preparing for his party seen in “Fellowship” before jumping back sixty years. From meeting Gandalf and the company of dwarves; Bilbo travels from his peaceful shire to the edge of Mirkwood forest.
First and foremost; ‘Hobbit’ is not ‘Rings’ and going in expecting the same journey, same tone, basically expecting the same film is quite wrong. The stories are different and while the visual style of director Peter Jackson is the same; the tone is different.
‘Rings’ has a much darker and heavier weight to the proceedings; I’d say it predated the craze post ‘Dark Knight’ to make everything gritty and a bit rough. ‘Hobbit’ on the other hand; while it does have it’s rough and gritty moments; is a much lighter film.
Why? Because it matches the time in Middle Earth; at the time of the events the land was at peace and all was well. There’s no need for an apocalyptic tone when everything (except when being pursued by wargs and orcs) is basically relaxed and bright? ‘Rings’ always had a sense of doom and apocalypse from the moment of reveal of The One Ring as Bilbo’s trophy.
‘Hobbit’ didn’t need that tone, it would have been crippled in it’s furry feet if it had. Unlike ‘Rings’, ‘Hobbit’ is quite a funny film with plenty of moments; even it’s the simple flick of eyes for the audience to laugh. Much of the humor does steam from Bilbo himself; thrust into this new situation and attempting to deal with it through his naïve creature comforts first, everything second mentality. There’s only one bit of humor that felt a bit forced/one-liner-ish which I won’t reveal but while I did laugh; it does stick out a bi tmore.
‘The Hobbit’ is ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ is ‘Lord of the Rings’. Same universe; a few of the same characters, but different times in the context of the world their stories are set in.
In writing the script, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro have expanded on elements only referenced in the book. Critics complain when a film ‘tells’ them something rather than ‘shows’ because film is a visual medium.
‘Hobbit’ does a lot of showing; instead of having the dwarves monologue to Bilbo of the arrival of Smaug and the loss of their home; we get to see Erebor in it’s glory and then at it’s downfall. This helps add weight to the quest; we can see the dwarves in their homeland, going about their business like any other person before it’s taken away from them.
The biggest and most noticeable change in this part is the orc Azgo; a character referenced in the novel yet he never made an appearance. Throughout the first section of ‘Hobbit’ the only foes to oppose the company are the trolls, goblins and then the wargs pursuing them from the mountains.
The addition of Azog I found quite welcoming because while it is entertaining to see the characters hack through hordes of foes; a central foe is always needed. One who can push the protagonists to the edge and when they appear, the audience knows that the fight to come will not be as simple as previous engagements.
Speaking of engagements; there is quite a bit more action in this film than in this portion of the novel. The action was solid and enjoyable and the ‘additional’ stuff didn’t stay long enough to outweigh it’s welcome.
Though I am sad that the dwarves themselves are not as well developed as I hoped they would have been. While each dwarf is recognizable thanks to their hair and wardrobe; most are given easily recognizable character traits but only a few are developed more. I cannot criticize too much as those who are expanded upon get more than in the book.
Thirteen dwarves was going to be the biggest hurtle for the film and I have to say overall the job was well done. Despite once again, not as many being developed, as I would have liked; I can understand. Otherwise the film would have been at least another hour or two in length.
The film has a deliberate pace, pacing similar to the ‘Rings’ films. Neither in too much of a rush to get to the end but neither too slow to make you fall asleep before the journey begins. It’s a smooth and comfortable pace, allowing the audience to become involved and enjoy the story without fear of getting lost with a five minute exposition dump because the film has been so rushed to get to the end.
Jackson has always been a solid storyteller; even in his earlier splatter films, there was never a sense of rushing to the next gag. Tell the story and let everything branch off from that.
Visually speaking, the film is a feast. Filmed at 5K on Red Epic cameras; it goes without saying that the vistas and outdoor locations are jawdroppingly fantastic. And yes there are plenty of vistas to drool over, plenty of areas in New Zealand not seen in the ‘Rings’ films.
From the grander of Erebor to the warmth of Hobbiton to the grace of Rivendell and the muck of Goblin Town; ‘Hobbit’ is a film that is epic in scope and commands to be seen on the big screen. And if you can, the biggest screen you can find.
Something I’ve always enjoyed is a moving camera; when the camera needs to stay still, it should stay still. This is why I’ve always loved Jackson’s films (even looking back at his early films); Jackson has a very active camera, it feels that you’re apart of the story, just skating around the edges as an invisible being.
When I saw ‘Lord of the Rings’ in theaters shortly before the extended cuts hit Blu-Ray I grew more excited as I realized how amazing this looks in 2D that it’ll look better in 3D.
Director of Photography Andrew Lesnie stereoscopic photography is fantastic and I hate to ride on the cliché again; but shooting native 3D is better than conversion. While there are some conversion that are amazingly good; shooting native will always trump it.
Jackson’s moving style is a perfect marriage for 3D; helping to bring you more into the world. Much of the frame is layered and gives plenty of solid fields of depth; this is one of the films that uses the 3D format very effectively. My only complaint is that there weren’t as many ‘in your face’ moments as I hoped; I admit, I’m a huge sucker for those.
Holding onto the visuals, I suppose I should address the Visual Effects or as many people call it: CGI. I am not adverse to CGI; it’s a fantastic tool that no one can deny that without it many films wouldn’t have been produced or come out like they have. If it wasn’t for CGI, ‘Rings’ might never have been made.
There is certainly a lot more in this film than in ‘Rings’; most notably with the orcs and goblins. A big point for many was that in ‘Rings’ many of the creatures that the characters are facing are actors in prosthetics. I can’t comment on the ‘why’ the decision to go CG for some of the orcs/goblins; I don’t have the answer. But the effects look fantastic and when I tried to focus on them and study; I did have the question of ‘practical or CG’ pop into my head.
But I’m not ‘one frame of CG is blasphemy’ purist like some people. CG is here and it’s here to stay whether people like it or not; yes we can look back at the films from the 1980s or earlier that did things practically, but let’s face facts…many of those films haven’t aged that well.
Gollum himself looks amazing, the technology has gotten advanced to allow the capture of more of actor Andy Serkis; making Gollum a far more emotional character.
There are some weak compositing shots and green screen material; but overall the CG is as solid as you’d expect it to be and I didn’t find it distracting.
But even with the fancy stuff, it comes down to the actors playing the roles. Ian McKellen effortlessly steps back into the role of Gandalf the Grey; it’s like nothing has even changed. Though the big find for many at least will be Martin Freeman in the role of Bilbo.
I was overjoyed when I heard Freeman had been cast; the actor perfectly embodies the comfort and easygoing nature of a hobbit. But like Frodo before him (though chronologically after) Freeman captures the evolution of Bilbo as he grows awkwardly and learns about the world beyond his fence. He doesn’t become a brave warrior by the end, but there are moments of strength slight enough to give hints of what he is/can be capable of.
To round out the main three leads is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield; the dwarf prince out to reclaim his homeland from the dragon Smaug. Like Boromir in ‘Fellowship’; Thorin is a complex character under a simple exterior. On the outside he’s headstrong to the point of stubbornness, fierce in battle, one who doesn’t care much for fools.
Easy enough to play the tough guy; but Armitage goes beneath that layer to the dwarf longing for his home. Longing to reclaim for his people the land where they once lived, laughed, and loved. He is someone who holds honor deep within himself and when given will return it in kind. At the same time, his calm nature can be lost to a more emotional; angrier side.
Like I said my biggest complaint was that the dwarves weren’t as well developed as I would have liked but there are some standouts. Ken Stott as Balin acts as the old hand, the trusted friend and second in command to Thorin. And at times, the compass for Thorin to either follow or ignore.
James Nesbitt as Bofur is wisecracking (his descriptions of Smaug to Bilbo drew large laughs) yet quite human character. In some ways he’s representing the overall attitude of the group; hopeful that they’ll be able to return home and stop living a wandering life.
Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner take up the roles of Thorin’s nephews Fili and Kili respectfully. Both are the young, exuberant and ready to take all comers kind of fighters; but unlike the cliché of all bark and no bite; the pair pack bite. It’s almost fair to say they’re the Merry and Pippen of the group; much more mature version of the pair mind you.
So, what’s my overall judgment? I loved it. The film is highly enjoyable and yes I know it’s long for most people; but this is an epic and epics tend to be long. But it’s an epic well worth enjoying and enjoy it on the big screen; I would certainly recommend the 3D.
I’m anxiously waiting for “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again”; each cannot come soon enough.
High Frame Rate aka 48 Frames Per Second Analysis
Before reading into my verdict, understand that I’m coming from the perspective of everyone else (sparing those working on the production) that is being one unused to this format. I walked in knowing that I was going to experience something different, a bold experiment that if it succeeded could be one of the most shattering changes to filmmaking as a whole.
With that middle of the road mindset; I came out half and half. A complaint of ‘it looks like digital video’ I’d have to disagree with; the film never looked that cheap even in the poorer sections of HFR.
Personal spaces such as Bag End, Gollum’s lair and conversations between characters came off fairly smooth and clean. These moments were fairly subtle in terms of knowing ‘something’ was off in the sense that I knew this wasn’t what I was used to in watching a film. This moments did appear almost like a window had been opened into Middle Earth and I was peering through.
Conversely, the faster characters moved and the wider the shots got; the more awkward it became. A mix of stilted, almost manikin movements and with far more fluid motion; but it appeared as someone hit the fast-forward.
Something I found odd too was that the film appeared oddly flat in many scenes that watching it in 24fps 3D that had depth. The mid-ground and foreground appeared fine yet the background appeared far closer and more 2D like. It wasn’t pure cardboard cutout like a bad conversion; but it almost felt like a conversion.
A big benefit of shooting closer to the human eye (60fps) was touted that it’d reduce motion blur and I will attest that it does do that. Which should go perfectly for Jackson’s mobile camera visual style; the problem is Jackson’s visual style can get aggressive in his camera work and his cutting.
I found myself with I can only describe as visual whiplash; it was too much to take at points. I don’t get eyestrain-watching 3D; I’m a huge lover of the format. Yet I did take of the glasses a few times to rub my eyes.
Despite my negativity towards it; I still have to give Jackson, DP Andrew Lesnie and the whole of the production praise for taking such a large gamble. And certainly I have to give some praise to Warner Bros. for backing them and giving a fairly sizeable (roughly 500screens) release to this new format.
The parts that worked do work and work well. The parts that don’t work so well, don’t work so well. Once again, I’m approaching it from only watching it once, if I watched the HFR multiple times I might become completely accustomed and all will appear to have a consistent flow.
HFR worked well enough for me to say I’ll give it another go for ‘Hobbit Part 2’ or whatever film comes out next in HFR. There is no guide to go on for seeing how effective HFR is, if it’ll eventually take over the industry or that it’ll stall and we’ll return to 24fps.
I will say if you’re interested in watching to compare and contrast (like I did); I would suggest watching the film in regular 3D/IMAX 3D prior to watching it in HFR. I would still say if you’re curious; take a chance it a go. This could be the only time HFR is ever used. I hate the cliché, but you have to experience it for yourself and form an opinion. In my theater a couple sitting near me preferred the smoother action scenes I found giving me whiplash.
Rarely do experiments work perfectly the first time and Jackson and company are going against about a hundred years of conditioning for 24fps. I’ll reiterate in summation that I’m willing to give HFR another go; it’s a bold new world never traveled and who knows where we might end up.
This might be the next step to virtual reality.