As the man responsible for bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy to life a decade ago, Peter Jackson has earned a great deal of geek cred. He managed to take an epic fantasy work and bring it to the big screen in a way that had never been done before. Jackson is now attempting to replicate that success with "The Hobbit," though the first installment doesn't bode well. It's not a bad movie per se, but it lacks much of the wonder and awe that oozed from Jackson's take on "The Lord of the Rings."
Set some 60 years before the events of "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" chronicles the events that led up to Frodo Baggins' (Elijah Wood) big adventure. The star of "An Unexpected Journey" is Frodo's uncle Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Drawn into an unwanted adventure by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Bilbo is the classic reluctant hero archetype. Despite being timid and fearful at the outset, his curiosity gets the best of him and Bilbo departs from his home for the adventure of a lifetime.
Much of what made Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy good was the attention to detail. The lush landscapes, detailed costuming, impressive sets and stunning visual effects work. The most important elements, though, were the bits that Jackson wisely cut from his film adaptation. Good storytellers know that film is a different medium than the printed page, and moving a story from one to the other often involves interpretation.
Oddly, in "The Hobbit," Jackson went the opposite route. Instead of trimming down the story to produce a tightly edited film, the director made the decision to take one book and expand it into three movies. Extra scenes have been introduced, using content taken from Tolkien's other Middle-earth stories, including the appendixes at the end of "The Return of the King." The expansion also means that "An Unexpected Journey" feels more like a prologue than an actual story. There's a lot of buildup with very little payoff.
For the hardcore Tolkien fans, the extra material is a nice indulgence, especially when it means seeing more of the world and the characters that we've come to love over the years. Purely as a film, though, the extra bits do more harm than good. They tend to drag on for far too long, often feeling as if they are unnecessary filler. It almost felt as if we accidentally wandered into an early screening of the inevitable extended edition rather than the theatrical cut.
The inclusion of the additional scenes also results in some tonal imbalance, as "The Hobbit" was written as a children's book. The material is lighter fare overall, and not as serious as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. What we're left with is a film that sometimes seems confused about its audience. Some scenes try to evoke a children's movie feel, while others are at the opposite end of the spectrum, pushing for a serious epic.
With all that said, Tolkien fans are likely to forgive every single one of the film's failings as soon as the "Riddles in the Dark" scene hits the screen. Watching Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) have it out with a battle of wits in an underground cavern is amazingly compelling. Both characters are so well played here, with the actors saying their lines yet still conveying their true feelings. Bilbo is simply trying to escape with his life. Gollum sees him as a meal. But both do the dance of formality. If you have even a passing interest in the source material, this is a must-see sequence.
One aspect of the film that's gotten a lot of press lately is the projection format. We saw "An Unexpected Journey" in 48 frames-per-second HFR 3-D, which is double the standard film frame rate. It's a new display technology that Jackson is pushing for, with the promise of unrivaled clarity. Unfortunately, this is an area where Jackson overreached.
On the one hand, the extra clarity is true. The high-speed nature of the film display removes motion blur and makes everything look as if you're right there on set with the actors. The downside is that it makes everything look as if you're right there on set with the actors.
While the film technology may be up to snuff, watching "An Unexpected Journey" in HFR 3-D makes it very clear that the lighting crew and the visual effects team don't really know how to properly handle the higher frame rate. The HFR format works for outdoor scenes at dusk or dawn, especially when the camera is pulled back. Move indoors, though, or to a scene where the camera is close in on a group, and it's like watching a behind-the-scenes video. All of the extra clarity exposes the sets for sets and destroys the illusion of it behind a physical location.
The extensive CGI work in the movie suffers the same fate. As a quick test, wave your hand in front of your face. See how your hand seems to multiply? That's motion blur. None of the CGI work in "An Unexpected Journey" has that. It's all crystal clear when in motion and, as a result, looks completely unnatural. Rather than feel like a big-screen epic, many of the scenes with extensive CGI felt like watching a video game cut scene on the big screen. The one exception to this is Gollum. He is simply fantastic.
HFR as a format may be the future of cinema, but before it can get to that point, all of the supporting crews need to learn how to properly work with the new technology. Otherwise, all it does is shine a bright light on glaring flaws. Jackson overreached by using it.
Ultimately, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a mixed bag. While the underlying story is good, the presentation isn't Jackson's best. If you simply want to spend more time in Middle-earth, go see it and enjoy it. If you want to see the good stuff, wait for "An Unexpected Journey" to hit video and reserve your theater time for "The Desolation of Smaug." No matter what you choose, just make sure you see it in traditional 24fps. It will look a whole lot better.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D, IMAX 3-D and HFR 3-D.
Editor's Note: Want to explore Middle-earth yourself? Be sure to check out our review of LEGO: The Lord of the Rings for more.
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