My View: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

First thing’s first: The Hobbit trilogy is NOT in any way going to be like the Lord Of The Rings trilogy – and that’s okay.

Where the three LOTR films were a tale of direness and doom, the Hobbit films will be decidedly more airy and light… and before you complain, that’s the way the actual book is.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a book for younger readers, and as such, you won’t find the darkness and moral terror that the LOTR books brought to the table.

However, even as a “children’s” book, The Hobbit graces 300 pages or so in novel form – and when you factor in material that bridges the 60 years between The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring from Tolkien’s exhaustively written appendices for the realm of Middle Earth, there’s still plenty of material to craft out each of the Hobbit’s two forthcoming sequels.

Yes… Peter Jackson and the Brothers Warner are milking the franchise for your hard-earned dollars, but as long as the movies themselves are good, who are we to care?

Which brings me to why I’m here: is An Unexpected Journey any good?

Quite.

(BE WARNED, YE WHO READS PAST THIS POINT: THERE BE EXTENSIVE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON)

Again, I must stress the tonal differences between the two sets of movies: this movie might turn off those of you who can only tolerate fantasy genre films if they’re monstrously epic and carry the fate of the world in the balance – because there’s none of that in An Unexpected Journey.

Well… that’s not entirely accurate as there is foreshadowing of Sauron’s return to Middle Earth – mostly in the form of a parley between Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman.

However, for the majority of the film, we in the audience follow the adventures of Bilbo Baggins as he’s enlisted into the Company Of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage from the first season of Strike Back – who’s character in that show had to be terminated at the start of the second season in order for him to play his part in The Hobbit trilogy).

During the opening minutes of An Unexpected Journey, we join Ian Holm’s elder version of Bilbo Baggins at Bag End – his lovely home under a hill in The Shire.

This sequence of the movie actually takes place mere hours before we were introduced to Middle Earth at the start of The Fellowship Of The Ring – and thusly concerns the preparations for Bilbo’s 111st birthday… and naturally brings back Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins (in a nice feat of continuity segueing) before his own tortuous adventure began.

Bilbo has finally sat down and put pen to paper in an effort to document his many adventures that have earned him a certain reputation amongst the denizens of Hobbiton – and we see in his eyes a mixture of fondness for the memories and a tiredness that carrying the One Ring around in his vest pocket for 60 years has inflicted.

Quickly, we’re transported backwards in time to find Martin Freeman’s younger Bilbo outside his home and enjoying some quality pipe smoking on a fine morning… only to be distracted by a tall shadow falling over him – a shadow belonging to none other than Gandalf The Grey.

Now, I must take a moment to point out that while Gandalf still looks like he has spent 2,000 years in Middle Earth, the make-up and costuming for Ian McKellan somehow manages to make the wizard look a bit more youthful – I think mostly by making him appear a bit more plump while enlarging his wizardly hat… while attaching a fetching scarf that I don’t recall him wearing in Fellowship.

After a bit of dialogue that goes back and forth between Bilbo and Gandalf – which played out a bit awkward in places, but lifted up by Freeman’s excellent carriage of a confused Hobbit – evening falls and Bilbo sits down to a nice plate of pan-fried fish… only to be interrupted by the arrival of a Dwarf, and another, and another, and another, so on and so forth until Bag End is positively bursting at the seams with dwarven merriment as they proceed to eat poor Bilbo out of house and home.

You see, Gandalf had left a little bit of runic graffiti on Bilbo’s front door before he departed – a rune that seemed to mean something along the lines of “Meeting Place For The Association Of Hungry & Homeless Dwarves”.

After the re-appearance of Gandalf, and the arrival of Thorin Oakenshield (played with great subtlety by Armitage that minces nobility, stoicism, and world weariness), it becomes clear that Gandalf has come to enlist Bilbo on quest for treasure… one that lies under the Lonely Mountain – sometimes referred to as the Misty Mountain – in the former dwarven kingdom of Erebor, which was once the greatest city to ever grace Middle Earth.

There’s one small catch: the city and it’s ridiculously tall piles of gold have been usurped by the fearsome dragon Smaug.

It’s made clear that for their plan to succeed, the company of dwarves (and one  Mithrandian wizard) need someone that could sneak by Smaug… one who possessed a scent that the dragon had never encountered – and since dragons weren’t overly concerned with the halflings who lived in The Shire, it made sense to Gandalf that an adventuresome Hobbit would fit the bill quite nicely.

However, when it was made adequately clear (to great extent by one dwarf) that there was a more-than-fair chance that Bilbo could end up incinerated at some point during the journey to reclaim Erebor, Bilbo decides that he doesn’t want to indulge in childish fantasies that would take him far from home and place him in harm’s way.

At this point, the scene to which I lead this article with takes place… and I must say, it’s quite a marvellous bit of a capella and one of my few bones to pick with the film as the scene is cut short far too short (and I honestly hope that there is a longer recording that will be unleashed at some point in the future… as it is, the version on the current soundtrack CD is precisely the length seen up top).

Needless to say, Bilbo changes his mind and signs his name to the rather lengthy dwarven contract that makes it clear that 1) the dwarves that comprise the Company Of Thorin Oakenshield bare no liability should any harm come to him, and 2) he is entitled to one fourteenth of any treasure recovered on their quest.

And so begins his unexpected journey across the lands of Middle Earth, on an adventure of the likes that very few hobbits had ever been on – one that brings the company into conflict with all manners of creatures: orcs, goblins, trolls, and wargs.

It also brings these adventurers to the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell – the same Rivendell in which we first meet Lord Elrond in The Fellowship Of The Ring – and as with Gandalf, the movie accomplishes the goal of making Elrond seem younger (in spite of the fact that elves don’t age) by having him ride in on horseback after slaying a marauding party of orcs.

It’s here that I feel I should discuss the one issue that seems to have taken over these Hobbit films: the frame rate.

As you’ve probably heard – either with a positive or negative slant, depending on the critic – Peter Jackson filmed this Hobbit trilogy at 48 frames per second (meaning that for every second of movie on the screen, there are 48 separate frames going by) instead of the industry standard of 24 frames per second that has been around for about a hundred years.

What a higher frame rate brings to a film is a level of clarity – some have likened it to looking through a large window while a theatrical group enacts a play based on The Hobbit – that audiences have never experienced before.

A great number of people have said that the clarity is so distracting that they can’t pay attention to the story because they are overloaded with set and make-up details.

Personally, I find that to be total and utter bullshit – mainly because I’m a person who works with filmed media… and since I know what frame rate does, I know it’s advantages.

When you have a movie like The Hobbit, which has an abundance of fast-paced battle sequences and lots of running around,  you get a strobe effect  while the action goes across the screen: it can be challenging for the human brain to make sense of fast moving action at the standard 24 frames per second because it seems that the objects on the screen are stuttering as bits of movement are lost between each frame of film.

Logically, as you add more frames to each second of film, more of the action is captured and then displayed when you play it back at the cinema – which makes a battle between 13 dwarves and an entire city of goblins (which is already pure chaos) seem a lot less like a jittery sequence of photos, and more like the fluid dynamic that it really is.

More frames = more information… and since your brain prefers to make it’s decisions with the most information possible, 48 frames per second (or higher) makes much more sense than the archaic 24 frames that was established with the advent of movies with sound – because it was easier to apply a linear audio track to film that ran at that speed.

Many of you who have HD video cameras at home may have played with the FPS settings on your own – many of these cameras come with a 1080p/30FPS option – and have discovered that higher frame rates actually result in a better picture.

This image clarity lends itself even better to 3D films since your brain has to assemble two different data sets into one image simultaneously for the 3D to work effectively… and you may have experienced the difficulty that 3D movies have when the objects on screen start moving around erratically: you doubly notice that strobe effect that’s inherent to 24FPS film.

Add in the polarized glasses that you wear while viewing 3D films at the theatre which reduce the amount of light that reaches your eyeballs, and the data rate that’s going into your brain drops even further.

So, yeah… there’s a lot to be said for clarity.

And since the technology of today’s cameras, digital cinema projectors, and home HDTV screens all have the capability to show high frame rate video, the traditionalist’s urge to keep filming at 24FPS for no reason other than it’s just the way audiences have been used to seeing movies doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Your average HDTV screen now supports 60Hz – which means it can effectively display video at 60 frames per second!

So I can only hope that the eventual Blu-Ray video release of An Unexpected Journey is at 48FPS without having to pay extra – as the majority of cinemas around the world are only showing the movie at 24FPS… and I can tell you right here, the action sequences were jittery as hell in that format, as I was unable to attend a showing with 48FPS.

Anyway… back to my analysis of the actual movie.

There are great stretches of the movie’s nearly three-hour run-time where not a lot happens – where the scenery and cinematography take the place of narrative… but that’s okay as it gives you plenty of time to soak in New Zealand’s countryside, and to pay attention to all the little things that make fantastical events and characters actually gel in Peter Jackson’s films.

Every now and then, you may find yourself looking at your watch – mostly during dense expository – but rest assured that these moments are far in between… and are only natural when converting Tolkien’s material to the big screen as he was very fond of run-on sentences that could last entire pages.

I’m not a Tolkien nerd by any stretch of the imagination, so I can’t tell you precisely what was in the books that made it onto the screen – or what scenes or characters in the movie were made up by screen writers on the whole/were imported from Tolkien materials outside of the originating Hobbit novel.

What I can tell you is that not much screen time was truly wasted – if any at all.

I can say here – with absolute confidence – that every bit of casting for characters we didn’t already know from the LOTR movies was pitch perfect.

Every actor seemed to live and breathe their individual character, and played off the other people in the ensemble brilliantly.

Every dwarf was splendidly dwarvish… and Martin Freeman was note-perfect as the young Bilbo Baggins – so much so that you couldn’t even imagine another actor performing in his hairy foot prosthetics.

Of course, all of the returning actors and actresses bring their ‘A’ games as well – adding small flourishes here and there to make you believe that their characters are indeed younger… whether it be they are quicker with a smile, or a fit of eye rolling when darkness is suggested to be at hand.

Gollum is once again on the screen, and Andy Serkis is able to flesh the miserable creature out more completely than he could a decade ago: while the LOTR films employed early, Oscar-winning motion capture technologies to bring Gollum to life via Serkis’ physical acting, An Unexpected Journey allowed Serkis to use his own facial expressions this time around (instead of them being purely animated during the previous films) – which really helps bring Gollum’s tortured psychosis to the forefront.

In the end, my only quibbles with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the frame rate issue, some make-up processes could have been a bit more refined between orcs and goblins, and that maddeningly short song about the Misty Mountain.

On the whole, I give An Unexpected Journey 8.95 stars out of a possible 10.

What’s maddening is that I have to wait a year for the next one! >.<

Thorin Oakenshield

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