A curious Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, journeys to the Lonely Mountain with a vigorous group of Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug.
Year 1, Day 163
BEFORE: This day has finally come. After spending countless hours scouring the internet, I managed to get passes for an advanced screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I have been waiting patiently for Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth for years now; waiting in anticipation to return to such a wonderful world and fantastic characters.
I will take this time to get some disclaimers out of the way. I have not read Tolkien’s original book just as I had not read The Lord of the Rings books before seeing the films either. With the Rings trilogy, I used the films as a substitute for the books, exclusively watching the Extended Editions to give me an entrance into Middle Earth. After seeing the films I went back to read the books, but I stopped after The Fellowship of the Ring because I did not find them nearly as entertaining as Jackson’s films. I say this to give my perspective of how I’m coming at The Hobbit films; a fan of Middle Earth but not familiar with the story.
Let the journey begin.
AFTER: Middle Earth is back and it’s better than ever. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes you on a whirlwind adventure featuring many new characters (mainly the 13 dwarves) and many new locations. Yet, there is a familiar feeling to the film not to different from Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
One of the biggest elements to Middle Earth is the mythology and the history behind it. There is a wealth of information that Tolkien created and put on paper. As I said before, I have not read The Hobbit so I can’t speak for how well it is adapted and having only seen it once have not memorized every single plot detail and development that occurs. What I can say is that overall, it was a well told story. Very much like The Lord of the Rings, there was a prologue at the beginning giving you the Cliff’s notes about Erebor, the home of a clan of dwarves, the treasure it holds, Smaug’s arrival, and why Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) along with twelve other dwarves want to reclaim it. The prologue was a great basis of knowledge to continue on with the rest of the film learning new bits along the way. While there is a lot of information thrown at you, I don’t think it is ever too much.
Instead of discussing specific scenes in terms of the story, and risk potential spoilers, I’ll be talking about them in the context of the cinematography and acting. As a whole, both cinematography and acting were phenomenal. The company, led by Thorin, and including Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) among others, had great chemistry. Much like the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings, the company didn’t need to force friendship or their feelings towards the other in the group; it all came naturally thanks to the friendship the actors formed in real life. And for the cinematography, lets just say it would be pretty hard to make anything look bad when many scenes are shot on location in New Zealand which has such breathtaking vistas, some old but many new.
One of the best examples of the fine acting is the scene between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) that is alluded to in the trailers. Gollum is a great character to begin with but Serkis brings even more to the character in this film. There are many more nuances to the character and you see Gollum struggle and the inner turmoil that plagues him. For Bilbo, this scene is the culmination of the little bits of this character we’ve seen up until that point. I argue that this is the first time in the film you see the complete Bilbo and all the tiny aspects of his character. When brought together, it’s hard to think of a better pair in this film than that between Bilbo and Gollum.
In terms of cinematography there are many great landscapes (which, really would be pretty hard to make look bad) but the closeups and more intimate scenes are also well shot. One scene I’d like to highlight in particular is one that probably took place in front of a lot of green screen and that is the fight between the giants (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what they are). It reminded me a lot of the stairway scene in the Mines of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring. The establishing shots help give you a sense of where exactly the dwarves, and Bilbo, are and the feeling of impending doom. As the fight ensues there is a great pacing between the tight shots of the company and then wider shots showing the separation between everyone and then their reuinion. The editing, framing, and coverage of this scene, while not one of the beautiful vistas of Middle Earth, is still a highlight of the technical achievement of the film.
Before getting into the exhibition, I’d like to briefly talk about the music. Howard Shore, the composer for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, returns to score The Hobbit. The sound remains the same and the music is very clearly inspired by the previous films. But there are also a few new themes including my personal favorite, the dwarf theme which is highlighted in the track “Misty Mountains”. You can listen to the full soundtrack, courtesy of Rolling Stone, including “Misty Mountains” and Neil Finn’s credits song “Song of the Lonely Mountain”.
Now to talk about the thing that most people are interested in, the HFR (high frame rate) 3D projection. If you haven’t heard about HFR yet here is the simple explanation: instead of shooting in the industry standard 24 fps (frame per second), Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 fps meaning there are twice as many images which is supposed to result in a clearer image and less motion blur in 3D. My initial reactions: HFR fulfills its purpose and results in some beautiful images, but it does take some time to get used to. There are two “side effects” so to speak: clearer pictures and smoother motions. The complaints surrounding the clearer image aspect is that it make the film look too realistic and is compared to HD TV where the clarity seems jarring. I don’t think this is true at all. Yes, everything is crisp and crystal clear. You really can see every wrinkle in the character’s hands and each piece of thread in their clothes. I was blown away with how good the picture looked and have never seen anything like it on the big screen, not even 4K. It is the second “side effect” that I take issue with and that is the smoother motions. Yes, it solves the problem it was meant to - motion blur in 3D presentations - but it also feels as if the film is being played at twice the speed. Right from the first shot, the HFR is instantly noticeable and I was struck with a feeling that the theater was messing up the projection. If I was not aware about HFR, I would have been convinced there was a problem. Sped up is a perfect way to describe it. There is a feeling that you are watching the film on fast forward and simple motions like walking and talking seem completely unnatural. I will say that as the film progressed, this feeling started to fade away to the point that it became unnoticeable by the end. Walking, talking, and other actions seemed normal again, all with the added benefit of the clearer picture. That feeling doesn’t completely go away however; there were still some small moments were the HFR really stands out.
On the T ride back to my dorm, I thought a lot about my initial reactions towards the film. And after writing everything out and elaborating on my thoughts, I think these initial reactions still stand. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is everything I wanted, hoped for, and expected from a return to Middle Earth. A great and detailed story with brilliantly played characters and breathtaking cinematography. And yet I’m still left with a feeling as if something is missing. Maybe I just want to see the next two films or maybe something really is missing from this first entry in The Hobbit trilogy. Even with this feeling, I could not recommend seeing this film any more. Fan of Middle Earth or not, you should go see this film and see it multiple times. And while it may take some time to get used to, see the film in HFR 3D. The 3D is some of the best since Avatar in 2009, the HFR does get better with time, and most importantly, it’s the way Peter Jackson made the film to be seen.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in theaters on December 14.
RATING: 5 out of 5