OK, I felt quite strongly about this film, so the review got away from me a bit, and is quite long. To make it a little more easily digestible, I split it into two halves; the first talking strictly about the film, and the second some thoughts about the HFR presentation. If you’re only interested in one of these things, then it’s easy to skip the other. Enjoy! “All great stories deserve a little embellishment.” So says Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) in the most telling line in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s return to the world of JRR Tolkien. It’s a line that clearly outlines Jackson and his co-writers’ intentions, yet it comes off as a veiled apology, as if the film-making team knew that what they have created is going to be problematic for die-hard Middle Earth fans. Sadly, Jackson’s new film doesn’t come close to silencing the skeptics like his Lord of the Rings films did, and is actually more ill-conceived than expected.
Things that do work well for the most part in The Hobbit are sequences that come directly from the source novel. Iconic scenes, such as the arrival of the dwarves at Bag End or the encounter with the trolls are handled pretty well, despite being padded out to unnecessary lengths with lame gags and pointless alteration of the original events in the book. Juggling such a massive primary cast is obviously a challenge, and as such the film’s best moments involve only one or two characters, with Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) meeting of Gollum (Andy Serkis) and the finding of the ring being a particular stand-out sequence, the only one that seemed like it could have used more time.
However, all of the good work that Jackson & Co do with the direct source material is swamped by the content they felt they had to develop themselves. The great achievement of the LOTR films is how they managed to distill the huge source novels to their most important story beats, only hinting at most of the wider story in a way that brought incredible richness to the world in which they take place. With The Hobbit though, Jackson only has a 300 page novel to start with, and the decision to make three lengthy films, I assume to parallel the first trilogy, is precisely why this first film doesn’t work.
The Hobbit should be allowed to stand alone as its own film, but it is structured in such a way, almost identically to the first LOTR entry The Fellowship of the Ring, that it’s all but impossible not to compare them. As a side-effect, the much lighter tone will be jarring for a lot of established franchise fans, the very people the film seems to be primarily aimed at. The chase sequence in the goblin tunnels for example is little more than an updated version of the Moria scenes from LOTR. It’s exciting enough, but much of the action feels in service of the film-making technology on display rather than the story, and as such none of the stakes of the earlier films are built here.
Where the LOTR films had to keep moving at such a pace to fit everything in, The Hobbit dwells on unnecessary moments which had only the briefest of mentions in the novel to reach its 2 hour 49 minute runtime. Most damaging are the call backs linking the previous trilogy, setting up what is likely to be an almost completely new story bridge between the two trilogies in the third film due in 2014. There is absolutely no reason for Frodo (Elijah Wood), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) to appear in this story, yet here they are, taking us away from a perfectly good narrative about a quest to fight a dragon. It reeks of cynical franchise care, and arguably disrespectful to the carefully crafted world that Tolkien created.
There’s a good movie somewhere in The Hobbit, and had Jackson shown more restraint we might have seen it. The film could easily lose at least 45 minutes, but it feels as if director feels so beholden to his previous work that he needs to deliver an epic on the scale of LOTR. But that’s not what this book is, and we’re left with an uneasy balance – the lighter tone to distinguish this as a separate story but a strict adherence to the LOTR structure – but ultimately doesn’t fulfill either side.
There’s a lot of discussion about the new 48 frames per second technology that Peter Jackson employed in the making and exhibition of The Hobbit. My feelings about it are a little mixed, but in the context of this film it really added another unpleasant layer to an already disappointing experience.
Any new film-making technology is potentially exciting when used in the right way. I’m no fan of 3-D as a rule, but when employed in the right circumstances I think it really does add another element to the cinema experience (Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams springs to mind).
What the HFR does do is remove a lot of the problems I have with 3-D. At 24 frames, I find myself very sensitive to flickering and light loss in a 3-D presentation, but at 48 frames it is remarkably smooth, and I can’t recall much light loss, if any. The downside is how the rest of the film looks at 48fps.
The difference is startling right from the studio logos. I’ve thought hard about the best analogy I can make to convey what it’s like, but nothing quite works. The fluidity of motion on screen and the dazzling clarity is really something to behold, but it’s about as cinematic as a shoddy crime reconstruction on a tabloid current affairs TV show. For all the money thrown at these films (allegedly the most expensive production in history), at 48fps it looks like a cheap, direct-to-video spin off of Lord of the Rings.
One thing that stuck out to me (again in contrast to the LOTR films) was the heavy reliance on CG characters. Obviously LOTR had its fair share of digital characters, but Weta Workshop seemed to pride themselves on their massive level of prosthetic work, allowing real actors to inhabit the roles. Here, while it’s true the dwarves are actors in makeup, all of the evil characters, the various orcs and goblins, are completely CG creations from what I could tell. It’s CG at a very high level, but CG nonetheless, and it really can’t compare to the excellent practical work in the earlier films. Whether or not this is a choice to better serve the HFR format is unclear, but one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about 48fps is that it reveals much of the artifice of prosthetics and on-set shooting. I honestly thought the prosthetics and makeup on the dwarves was fine, but it’s possible that this was a concern for the film-makers. Not something I’m sure of, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear something along these lines.
It’s such a bold move to introduce this new format with a project of this scale. Even more so with a world that people are so familiar with from the previous trilogy. The attention to detail on display to make it feel like the same world is swept aside by the jolt of seeing everything in such an unusual way. There is an adjustment period obviously, but even so, in almost three hours I never really got used to it.
There may be a place for HFR somewhere down the pipe. And luckily you can see The Hobbit in regular old 24fps in 3-D, 2-D, even on 35mm if you so choose. As for me, I’m glad I saw the HFR, but it’ll take something unique to draw me to another film at 48 frames.