THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Review

     December 13, 2012

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Technology will march forward.  That march usually involves something getting trampled along the way.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is underfoot of  horrible 48fps 3D, also known as HFR 3D (High Frame Rate 3D).  Billed as a technology to sharpen 3D and reduce the headaches it can cause, HFR 3D has crippled Peter Jackson‘s return to Middle-earth.  Without the atrocious visuals, Jackson’s film is still slightly repetitive and bloated, but the magic mostly remains intact.  But under HFR 3D, the journey looks like a cheap soap opera on fast forward with crappy digital effects.

Taking place sixty years before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is cajoled into joining a company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen).  Their mission is to reclaim Thorin’s kingdom of Erebor and the riches therein from the dragon Smaug.  Bilbo, who is perfectly happy to live in his comfortable hole in the ground, is to be the party’s burglar since hobbits can move quietly, and Smaug will be unfamiliar with Bilbo’s scent.  Reluctantly, Bilbo joins the adventure, but dark forces begin to circle the setting as the party makes their way to Thorin’s fallen kingdom.

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Setting aside the HFR 3D for a moment, The Hobbit is an odd adaptation because it’s one of addition rather than subtraction.  Addition is usually used when adapting childrens books, and while J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is geared more towards children, it’s still a bona fide novel.  Reducing The Lord of the Rings into movies helped streamline the narrative and make a series of films that were better than the books*.  With The Hobbit trilogy, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have pulled minor sentences to expand the narrative.

This expansion serves to fatten up the story but never in a way that feels significant to the plot or the central characters.  An Unexpected Journey greatly expands the role of the wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) to make him the discoverer of a necromancer, but Radagast is so ridiculous—he’s a granola hippie with birdshit in his hair and rides around on a sled pulled by bunnies—that it feels like something better suited to an extended edition or excised altogether.  The movie also forces an antagonist by bringing out Azog (Manu Bennett), an orc seeking revenge against Thorin.  His presence is particularly confusing when we learn that the dwarves were basically too lazy to kill Azog the first time they faced him.

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Teasing out these supporting characters and plotlines may be good for the full trilogy, but in the span of An Unexpected Journey, they only raise the question of why so much time is devoted to these minor characters at the expense of the dwarves.  In addition to having similar names (“Oin”, “Gloin”, “Ori”, “Dori”, “Nori”, etc.), we never see much of their personalities.  By the end of the film, I could only name half of the dwarves, and I imagine most audiences will simply reduce to the characters by identifying them as “Handsome Dwarf”, “Other Handsome Dwarf”, “Fat Dwarf”, “Old Dwarf”, etc.

Undervaluing characters at the expense of expanding the plot and lengthening the action scenes is ultimately what makes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a weaker story than the first chapter in The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring.  Granted, the fellowship has fewer and more diverse characters, but at least we have some idea of who they were by the end of the film.  The dwarves are simply background, and Freeman, McKellen, and Armitage are burdened with the task of making us care about the journey.

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Thankfully, they all give wonderful performances.  Freeman is an absolute delight, and it’s clear why the production chose to work around his Sherlock schedule just so he could lead the picture.  His portrayal of Bilbo is funny, bashful, scared, nervous, and an all-around compelling character.  McKellen remains as essential to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth as the visuals, score, and any other technical aspect.  He gives the movie both its dramatic gravity and its sense of wonder.  As for Armitage, he gives a commanding performance as someone embittered by the loss of his home, entitled to reclaim his throne, and monomaniacal in his pursuit of his goal.  Viewers had some sense of how Bilbo and Gandalf fit into this world, but Thorin’s presence adds some freshness to the tale.

Overall, it’s so wonderful to sink back into the familiarity of Middle-earth.  Howard Shore‘s magnificent score makes feel like we’re back to the awe we experienced back when we saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The gorgeous production design, the sweeping vistas, the rich cinematography, and much more all make Unexpected Journey feel like a homecoming, albeit one that’s not quite as welcoming as before.  The house is bigger, the trappings are more decorative, but the company isn’t as inviting.

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Aside from shortchanging the majority of the cast in favor of cameos and two-dimensional new characters, Jackson has created a film with action that’s bigger, but rarely better.  Almost all of the set pieces boil down to the characters being on the run, getting cornered, and then being rescued at the last-minute by an external player.  Furthermore, a run through the goblin tunnels is reminiscent of the Moria chase in Fellowship of the Ring, but it lacks the pacing and patience of Jackson’s 2001 film.  The 3D allows Jackson to fill the frame with more stuff, but the result ends up feeling more like a theme park ride than a breathless escape.  Relying on “bigger” and “more” ties into the travesty that is HFR 3D.

First, let me say that I applaud ambition, but there are two kinds of ambition when it comes to filmmaking.  There’s artistic ambition, which is abstract, and then there’s technical ambition, which is a straight line.  Technology gets better over time.  Visual effects improve, but they all had to start out a place where they were likely less-than-impressive.  When Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came out, we fell into the Uncanny Valley, but technology helped pull us out and we’re further now than we were in 2001.  Trying to de-age Jeff Bridges in TRON Legacy didn’t work out, but I’m sure we’ll perfect that process within the next ten years or so.  So it is with HFR 3D that someone had to be first, it had to be someone with budget and freedom, and that person was Peter Jackson with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  I don’t know if HFR 3D will ever get better, but in this movie, it is downright abysmal.

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Jackson decided to use HFR 3D because he wanted to draw viewers deeper into the experience.  Personally, I find that 3D creates a barrier between a film and the viewer, but if it’s used well, we can accept it (or at least those of us who don’t get a headache from it; 3D is physically impossible for some people).  The HFR 3D in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t something we accept.  It’s something we endure.  We endure how characters move in a completely unnatural way and with creatures that somehow look less convincing that what Jackson and his team conjured in the early 2000s.  Middle-earth looked alive in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  HFR 3D makes it look undead.  When I saw old Bilbo (Ian Holm) reach for a pen and that movement didn’t look right, I audibly said, “Oh no.”

HFR 3D also raises the question of director intent.  To see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as Peter Jackson truly intended, you have to see it in HFR 3D.  For some, it may work.  I know people who look at their 120hz TVs and they don’t see an HD, lo-fi image.  They just see the HD.  But this is the problem with not only HFR 3D, but 3D in general: we’re no longer debating craft.  We’re debating technology.  We’re arguing over the very presentation of a film removed from its story, characters, and debating if it even looks “right”.  I don’t know where a discussion begins if we don’t have a uniform viewing experience, and if one viewing method is deemed less worthy than another by the filmmaker.  So if you see the film’s most memorable scene—the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis)—and you see it in 2D, you may not be seeing it how Jackson intended.  But you’ll see it at its best.

Rating the film: B-

Rating the film in HFR 3D: C-

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*The books are a chore.  Tolkien’s a bad writer, the story takes too long to get going, and there’s too much damn singing and crappy poetry.  A straight adaptation would have been terrible.

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