A (Hopefully) Unbiased Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Now that I have had a few days for my fanboy excitement to subside, I thought I would finally post my review of the latest movie blockbuster, The Hobbit.

Here’s my BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front):

The movie is an enjoyable fantasy adventure epic, complete with trolls, spiders, goblins, orcs, giants, elves, hobbits (halflings), dwarves, wizards and a dragon. Although the film clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, the pacing is appropriate to the material being covered and not a chore to get through. Some of the silliness of the novel remains intact, while darker, more violent action scenes have also been adapted, more closely associating the movie with the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy from a decade ago. Fans of typical action fare, with one battle or chase leading directly into another, are likely to be disappointed by the long opening and the stagnant scenes from Rivendell. Fans of narrative drama that relies on marvelous acting and dialogue within static scenes to move the story along, are equally likely to be disappointed in how the movie progresses when it travels, as the action seems strung together much like a relay race – one action sequence handing off to another. This film tries to straddle the line between the two types of films and, as a result, doesn’t really feel at home in either. However, for those willing to sit back and be entertained by the choices of Director Peter Jackson, trusting that the finished product is greater than the sum of its parts, the film is a fun, entertaining, visual spectacle.

My Grade: 85/100

A Word about the Technology:

While this is primarily a review of the movie, it does seem prudent to at least acknowledge one of the biggest talking points of the movie; it being the first major film to adopt a new, 48 fps frame rate. The 48 fps (or HFR) version of The Hobbit is only available on approximately 450 screens across America. Having seen both the 3D HFR and the more “traditional” 2D 24 fps versions, I would recommend the former to those that have the opportunity to experience it. Combining 48 fps with the current trend of developing films for 3D, The Hobbit is a visual spectacle unlike any other out there. However, it should be noted that 48 fps is merely an enhancement to the experience, and not something necessary to enjoy the movie.

For those still undecided about which format to choose, here are a few points to consider, as, it seems that even seasoned film critics that get paid big money by major outlets seem to be a bit confused on the subject.

What HFR is not:

  • HFR is not a means by which the brightness in scenes is increased to combat the dulling that occurs when a film is shot in 3D. Brightness is entirely a matter of lighting and post-production doctoring
  • HFR is not a higher definition picture. The resolution of the images remains unchanged regardless of what speed the movie is shot or viewed at.
  • HFR does not “speed up” the images on the screen.

What HFR is:

  • HFR means less eye-strain when viewing 3D images. By providing more frames per second, the depth, motion, and transitions are handled more by the picture and less by the eye, this means that there is far less demand on the eye to compensate when viewing 3D pictures on a 2D screen.
  • HFR does mean that the eye sees more images per second for any image on screen. In static, slow-moving scenes, this is not terribly important. Where the difference becomes readily apparent, is in action sequences or in any scene where the camera is panning across a stationary object. In the day of high resolution, it is counterintuitive to then blur the fine details by filming at lower speeds. By filming in HFR, Jackson preserves the details in presentation every time an object or the camera moves. This means that, among other things, fight scenes are now crisp and clear, instead of blurred motion in between static shots of combatants. This also means that the numerous shots of the breathtaking scenery that make up New Zealand remain crisp and clear as the camera pans across long stretches of rolling hills.

A Note about the “So-called Soap Opera Effect”

48 fps HFR has come under fire for giving The Hobbit a soap opera feel. No longer does the movie “feel” like a movie, but it looks cheap and plastic. I can say that the first part is accurate, but that the second part is not being entirely fair. The movie does not look like a 24 fps film. There’s a very good reason for that. It was neither shot at 24 fps, nor was it shot on film. It was shot digitally at 48 fps. The combination of 48 fps, digital capture, and high resolution creates a hyper-real image. Motion blur associated with watching a movie on film is nearly eliminated. Even static shots are crisper and clearer. The softening that comes from 24 fps does not exist. This means that everything stands out more, including the fact that the movie is shot on a set and is not part of real life. Lighting, costume, and set designers in conjunction with post-production editing, are largely responsible for the final image.

Another reason for the soap opera effect is that 48 fps is very, very close to 50 fps. 50 fps is the interlaced frame rate of television outside of North America. Without getting into a great deal of technical jargon that mostly only video engineers care about, the frame rate that a person sees in a television show determined by medium, budget, and geographic location. I may, at some point in the future take the time to explain the differences in frame rates, but that is a separate subject. All that needs to be pointed out here is that 48 fps in The Hobbit while having the hyper-real look sometimes associated with soap operas, manages to retain the hyper-real look even in 3D and during fast-paced action sequences. And it is during those times, when the camera is moving about, that 48 fps makes all the difference. Gone are juddering and shakiness as well.

Having seen The Hobbit in both 3D HFR and “traditional” 24 fps 2D, I can say that any negatives associated with the picture that result from HFR are far outweighed by the positives that also result.

There. That’s all I am going to say about HFR versus traditional. The reality is, the traditional 24 fps viewings were still filmed at 48 fps, they were simply been converted to 24 fps in post-production. So the minuses still exists, while the positives do not.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The movie itself is highly entertaining. Unlike many fantasy films, no part of The Hobbit seems overly far-fetched (the escape from Goblintown being the possible exception). As a stand-alone film, the pacing does feel a bit off. The introduction is really three introductions. First, the audience is re-introduced to the opening moments of The Fellowship of the Ring. Then, that particular introduction frames the background to the upcoming story, giving a visually stunning explanation of how the dwarves were driven from their home by Smaug. After all of this is addressed, the story then begins. But it begins by introducing the audience to 15 characters; Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and 13 dwarves. This takes time and, quite frankly, there is no way to rush it. To his credit, Jackson did compress the introduction of the dwarves a bit, but he also relied very heavily on Tolkien’s narrative as provided in the novel to dictate the flow of the scene.

There is considerable griping in regards to a 300 page novel being turned into three 3-hour movies. This is quite disingenuous however. It is true that The Hobbit is only roughly 300 pages. But the movie is not, nor, since Jackson took over, has it ever been solely based on the novel. The movie also includes material from other Tolkien works pertaining to Middle Earth. No one seemed to be complaining when The Hobbit was planned out as two movies clocking in at 5 hours. But, now, with even more material added, there seems to be issue with stretching things to three films at 8.25 hours.

If looked at as a film by itself, the movie has pacing issues. If looked at as the opening of 8+ hours of story-telling, then the pacing of the film seems rather balanced. Personally, I can think of two action sequences (and 10 minutes) that could easily be excised from the film without sacrificing quality. One of the biggest offenders in this matter is when Jackson adapted a mood-setting passage that helped (in the novel) to establish how the world was so different from the Shire.

When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game and catching them, and tossing them down into darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. (The Hobbit, p. 68)

This passage takes all of 20 seconds to read. Yet, on the screen, it plays out into a 5-minute fight among rock giants, complete with Bilbo and the dwarves riding on the legs of them. Visually, it was somewhat fun. But, in fairness, it added nothing to the film other than more CGI special effects.

The cast performances ranged from good, to exceptional. Martin Freeman makes an excellent Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen is, as always, a perfect Gandalf, and Andy Serkis is, once again, eerily, creepily perfect as Gollum. Richard Armitage does not disappoint as Thorin Oakenshield. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast does solid work, with Sylvester McCoy turning in a humorous take on the “extra material” character, Radagast the Brown.
The story itself is a very straight-forward adventure quest one. It is adapted from one of the more beloved children’s books of the last century. This leaves little room for the story to stink.

Once the movie leaves the Shire behind, it quickly abandons the light-hearted feeling associated with the novel. The overall tone of the movie is much darker, and, the developments are somewhat more violent. A humorous encounter with trolls that, in the novel, is non-violent but somewhat scary (will the dwarves be eaten or not) is turned into a fight sequence with the same end-result. The escape from Goblintown is similarly transformed from a flight through passages to escape the goblins into a somewhat epic CGI-filled battle. Ironically, this is also the one time where some of the silliness returns.

I have heard some folks complain about the time spent (especially in Rivendell) explaining various things, like the naming of the blades. While it is true that such scenes could likely be cut, one of the main things to keep in mind is that, a big reason for the Tolkien fandom is that time was taken to include these details. Tolkien’s world is detail rich. Peter Jackson, wisely IMHO, chooses to err on the side of keeping many of the details rather than risk the movie playing out like the Rankin-Bass animation from 1977.

Could Peter Jackson have tightened up the movie some? Sure he could have. But it’s not that long ago where moves were usually 2 hours or just a bit over. As the opening of a three-part epic, the length of the movie is not really an issue.

In the closing moments of the movie, the party looks out across a vast expanse and sees their ultimate destination, the Lonely Mountain. I must say, it does look like it is about two movies away.

Advertisements

Why Go to the Movies?

I  have, more than once, been accused of being a cinephile. There was a time when I saw nearly every movie released in my area worth seeing (and many not so worth it). Sure, I had more disposable income than I do now, but also, the experience of going to the theatre and watching the film was something unique. Now I look at how much I would need to spend for that same experience and I wonder, often aloud, “Why bother?”

One adult with a Coke will cost me anywhere from $8.50 – 16.50 depending on the time of day, the movie showing, 3d or not, and whether or not I have a frequent visitor refillable soda cup. Now, I am not one that has a problem going to the movies alone, but it is still almost always more enjoyable to go with someone else. So now I’m at $17.00 – 33.00 for one film. Yikes! That’s an awful lot to pay for an experience that isn’t even guaranteed to be soothing and pleasant. There’s always the risk of morons with cell phones, rowdy children, sexually amorous teenagers, projector problems, or the seven foot-tall two foot-wide guy coming in at the end of the previews and sitting down right in front of you. We won’t even get into what happens when one finishes that 32 oz. Coke in the first 25 minutes of a 135 minute film.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is still something to be said for seeing films on super-sized screens with 21 speaker sound systems that can make your teeth rattle in your skull during the action sequences or the THX intro. And it used to be that the only way one could experience a movie the way it was intended to be experienced was to go to the theatre to see it. But that simply isn’t the case anymore.

With the great advances in digital technology, viewers can now watch films in the comfort of their own homes with stunning picture and incredibly rich sound. Now, not everyone has a monster screen and a high-powered sound system. But these days most people are finding themselves with televisions 42 inches or larger in their living rooms. The difference is, in their living rooms they are only 7-15 feet from their televisions. That means they are getting the same viewing experience in terms of how much of their vision is taken up by a picture as they do in a theatre. And in some cases they may be getting even more, especially compared to some of the “small screens” in those multiplexes popping up everywhere. Most households also have at least a passable stereo system. Even many of the simple systems have the ability to pipe through sound from the television or a Blu-ray player. Those wanting a bit more of the “theatre feel” can upgrade to a home theatre-in-a-box (HTIB) for all of $250 – 300.

So, given that many folks have the makings of a serviceable theatre in their homes, and movies can be rented for as little as $1 .00, or purchased for as little as $15.00, the incentive to actually go to the movies seems to sort of pale. For the price of two adults one can actually purchase a Blu-ray copy of a movie and relax on the couch with a Coke (or better yet an adult beverage) and watch with no distractions. And hey, if that Coke makes its way through the system too fast, there’s always a pause button!

About the only reason remaining to go out to the movies is to be part of “the event”. There are still some films filled with pop-culture hype that just demand to be seen in the cineplexes. But those films, at least ones that appeal to market of more than one demographic, are even becoming a rarity. It also seems that these days that a growing percentage of the films released are just plain forgettable.

Blah. Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety. But when I can order pizza delivery, enjoy a Coke or a beer, and watch a movie in stunning clarity with pretty good sound along with 0-10 of my good friends for under the cost of two adults going to the actual cinema, it just seems like a no-brainer. There are very few movies that just scream out to be seen without the 3-4 month wait for Blu-ray/DVD release. I would rather take the money saved and reinvest it in upgrading the home theatre, or in buying/renting extra films. (Maybe that’s why my brother and I have 2,200 titles in the house.) Or one could go to dinner with their significant other more often too.

Of course, I am still going to go see The Hobbit on opening  night come 14 December 2012.

The Hobbit Trailer