Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

The biggest buzz in movie news these days is the release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The film slammed the box office this weekend, dominating in a way that even its predecessors in the Lord of the Rings trilogy did not. The film pulled in nearly $223 million at the box office its opening weekend, and that was with a traditional Friday opening rather than the oh-so-trendy "Wednesday opening to pad the numbers" tactic.

The movie is news for several reasons. The obvious, of course, is that it's the long-awaited completion of the story of the Baggins clan as written by J.R.R. Tolkien, an adaptation of the prelude (not prequel, for this book was in fact written first) to the longer, epic Lord of the Rings. The second is Jackson's decision to shoot the film in 48 fps "High Frame Rate" (or HFR) format. For around 100 years now, films have been shot in 24 frames per second; the argument in favor of HFR is that the faster frame rate reduces motion blur and strobing, thus clarifying images, especially in 3D, and that it gives a "hyper-realistic" look to the movie. I'll look at whether that succeeds in my "The Ugly" section, below. For now, suffice it to say many directors are closely watching the reaction to this audacious experiment, with such luminaries as James Cameron coming out in favor of the format and expressing potential plans to use it in the future.

Finally, Jackson's (late) decision to split what was originally two films into a trilogy, ostensibly to fit more material from the appendices of Lord of the Rings into the overall narrative has created some controversy surrounding the film, with some claiming it's nothing but hubris on Jackson's part, or a cheap money grab by New Line. Now I can't argue that money had something to do with it--New Line is, after all, a business and in order to stay solvent, they kind of have to make money (that's the point of being a business, more's the pity for fanbois who froth at the mouth over the idea of *gasp* profit). However, I do firmly believe that Jackson is trying to tell the best, grandest story he can, and adapt as much of the source material as possible. I also have faith that he'll do it well.

So, how does the Hobbit live up to the earlier films in the series? Spectacular, I say, and in my opinion it's only blinded, overly-jaded film critics with their fingers far from the pulse of the community (which pretty much applies to all film critics) and whiny, spoiled textual literalist fanbois who will dislike this film. And yes, I abhor textual literalists and fanbois with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, so if you're insulted by that, well, too bad.

As for critics, well, once again we've proven they as a group are pompous academics with no clue what audiences want or appreciate, with a major disconnect in ratings on Rotten Tomatoes (65% fresh for critics, 81% fresh for actual audiences).

The Good
This movie easily stands up to the other films in the series, though the tone is somewhat different, because we're in a different era, sixty years earlier in the Third Age. At this point in time, Middle Earth is at peace. There have not yet been whisperings of the Return of the Shadow and most races live in relative harmony. The orcs and goblins have been driven underground, and evil does not plague the world.

The pacing in the film is, despite some critics' claims to the contrary, excellent. It does not drag, and even the exposition scenes are well-performed and contain interesting dialogue that moves the scenes forward. There is plenty of action to go around, and a good juxtaposition of the good humor of a band of merry adventurers with the rising threat of a roving pack of orcs that have ventured into the West, and the appearance of a Necromancer in the forest of Mirkwood.

The performances are uniformly excellent and it's refreshing to see the return of Sir Ian McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchet, Christopher Lee, and of course, Andy Serkis playing very different versions of their Lord of the Rings characters--remember, this is a time of peace and hope, before Saruman has betrayed the Free Folk (though there are indications of his early slide herein). It's nice to see Elrond smiling and hopeful, and Galadriel with an ethereal and mischievous smirk on her face, far different than the semi-threatening and unreachable figure we got in The Fellowship of the Ring. These are elves the way I pictured them when I read the books, and I very much enjoyed the performances. Andy Serkis steals the show as Gollum, as one might expect, and slides back into the role he originated eleven years ago, as though no time at all has passed.

The new characters are equally impressive--Martin Freeman's Bilbo is well-rendered as a simple country gentleman who is in way over his head but gradually is learning that there's far more to him than even he knew. Richard Armitage's Thorin possesses all of the dignity, wounded pride, and anger that his character needs, and while we did not get to know all thirteen dwarves individually in this film, those that we did get to meet are very well differentiated in terms of attitude and personality. Sylvester McCoy (of Doctor Who fame) holds his own as Radagast the Brown, even when sharing the screen with McKellan.

The Bad
 I have very little to criticize regarding the direction, writing, or acting in this film. Perhaps the biggest criticism I can make is in regards to the disconnect between the "new" material adapted from the appendices, and the direct adaptation of the base source material from The Hobbit. The reason for this is that the LotR appendices don't contain (obviously) as much detail as the novels, and instead include sketches of events that occurred to bridge the two stories. In adapting these sketches, Jackson was forced to fill in a lot of blanks--something to which many textual literalists take great umbrage. It does result in a slight disconnect between the new sequences, written in the voice of Walsh, Boyens, and Jackson, and those sequences adapted from Tolkien's actual voice. That is to say, the script writers' original dialogue has a different tone than that taken from Tolkien. While they screenwriters do an excellent job of creating a pastiche of Tolkien's voice, the mimicry is not perfect and can be somewhat jarring at times. Part of this is due to the dialogue style, and part of it is the often-forced relocation of Appendix scenes into the greater storyline of the film--the meeting between Radagast and Gandalf, for example, does not take place in the company of the dwarves in the text, but Jackson has moved it there in the film, for pacing and plotting reasons. It works well; it can simply be a bit jarring at times.

Also of irritation to me is Jackson's continuing association of pipe weed with, well, weed. This is not something Prof. Tolkien ever intended--indeed, he is very explicit in Lord of the Rings that pipe weed is "a variety of tobaciana," that is, tobacco. The hobbits mix and smoke custom tobacco blends, something any pipe connoisseur or habitual pipe smoker (such as myself) can tell you is an art form unto itself. Sometime in the 60's the hippie movement latched on to the term "weed," and we got stuck with the association ever since. There are two rather unnecessary drug references in the film, and that rankled me a little.

Next: the CGI. I'm an unabashed fan of practical effects. CGI almost never looks better than practical effects, if the latter are feasible--for example, Smaug would look awful done with practical effects on the budget any film has. But Orcs? there was no excuse for doing Azog and the Great Goblin entirely CGI. They looked CGI, which is a shame in contrast to the stark realism of Gollum. Jackson made a huge mistake deciding to use so much CGI for the goblins and orcs in this film.

Finally, there is a scene near the end which I will not detail for the sake of avoiding spoilers, during which Bilbo performs an action that I felt was far out of character for him, but in the end it worked for the overall storyline, so that's a nitpick.

Textual Alterations
I'm putting this in its own section as there's a lot of controversy over it, so while I am a fan of what they did, many would consider it "Bad," rather than "Good."

Jackson leaps right into the inclusion of the LotR appendices into the story of the Hobbit, with varying degrees of artistic license. Thus, we get to see the White Council (moved here to Rivendell during the period the dwarves are visiting) and Radagast's encounter with the Necromancer and his meeting with Gandalf (moved also, to the midst of the dwarves' travels). In addition, we are given an enemy for Thorin--the albino orc known as Azog the Defiler, who is hinted at in the appendices (which imply that the orcs in the Hobbit have a specific grudge against these dwarves) but never fully detailed. Many are complaining that the added material does not further the story, but I would point out that we're only a third of the way in, and it's very premature to make such claims.   Personally, I thought the "new" additions were well-executed and blended nicely with the overall story. Nothing felt extraneous to me, and I am pleased to say that nothing in my memory was actually removed from the story--the adaptation is quite faithful to the text overall, and the actual alterations to specific events are minor, with the possible exception of Radagast's involvement with the dwarves.

In the end, I didn't feel these elements were added to "pad" the story for financial gain, but out of a desire for Jackson to adapt as much of the source material that he had license to adapt. Also, kudos to him for not inventing names for the Blue Wizards.

The Ugly
The aesthetics of the film are something of a mixed bag.  I went to see it in the controversial High Frame Rate 3D presentation. It was, I will say, quite pleasant to see Middle Earth rendered on screen again, and it all looks wonderfully consistent with the Middle Earth in the earlier trilogy--nothing was changed or "updated," and the consistency is appreciated. When one gets something right the first time around, there's no need to fix it, and Jackson realized this. The Shire is still the Shire, and Imladris is still Imladris. It was easy to get swept back up into the grandeur of Middle Earth.

As for the HFR presentation--I think this has to be regarded as a failed experiment, at this time anyway. I don't see the technology being up to snuff for the presentation. This is not to say it was awful--I just think that while it didn't take anything away from the film, really, it also didn't add anything. It also, to our sensibilities, looks somewhat cheap, which is ironic since it cost Jackson double the film to make. The problem, I think, is that in looking so hyper-realistic, it breaks the illusion and thus ends up paradoxically looking a little fake. It also creates an illusion of characters moving in fast-motion because we are not used to watching characters on film move at real-time speed; 24fps creates a tiny bit of strobe and a slight slowing-down of action, whereas 48fps is so smooth and real-time that when someone moves at normal speed we are subjected to an illusion of them moving really fast.

It does, however, achieve its goal of reducing eye strain in 3D. A friend of mine who gets violent headaches at 3D films did not have a headache or even sore eyes at the end of this film. So that's a plus.

The use of 3D itself in this film is very subtle--there's not a lot of "things being thrown at the audience from the screen." It's just used mostly to provide depth perception, and when it works, it works well. I think as much as I enjoy it when it's done well, 3D is about played out. Either it's a gimmick, now, which everyone hates, or it's just used to provide subtle depth perception, which while pretty, isn't necessary to enhance one's enjoyment of a film.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an outstanding first entry into the prequel (prelude) trilogy to Lord of the Rings. It is well-paced, excellently acted and directed, and the visuals are consistent with the Middle Earth we all have come to know and love. The Appendix elements are skillfully worked into the overall narrative to give us a nice linking story to the darkness that is to come, and I am looking forward to future installments.  On the down-side, a disconnect in the fleshing out of sketchy appendix elements combined with the somewhat cheap (but expensive) looking high frame rate can be distracting and create a disconnect from the overall illusion.

Final Rating: Four out of five kernels.


  1. I generally agree with pretty much everything you are saying here Jay. I ended up watching the 2D version which judging from what you are saying must have been a good choice. In spite of some annoyances, which you point out, I had a great time watching this film.

    BTW: I totally agree with you about the pipe weed issue. While it is a minor point, I am glad I am not the only one who was annoyed by that.

  2. Great review! The comments about jaded critics (and PJ haters) and textual literalists who hated the movie because "the years are wrong" or something similar are right on target.

  3. Now I really can't wait to see the movie! I'm especially looking forward to seeing how the appendices (which I always read faithfully every time I read the books) are worked into "The Hobbit." Thanks for a very thoughtful and well-written review!

  4. I got to see this in 3D 48fps this weekend and it was very enjoyable. I'm not a big fan of 3D after a few bad examples but couldn't complain this time about the image brightness or quality. I also think the 3D effect was nicely used. I was impressed with the scene with Gollum - the character was fully believable and had much more menace than in the trilogy.

  5. I saw it in again last night in 24fps IMAX 3D, and I have to say that the 3D was indeed MUCH better in the HFR presentation, as was the picture clarity and quality. Comparing the two directly, I'm a bit more sold on HFR than I was on initial viewing.