The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
(2012, New Zealand/UK/US, d. Peter Jackson)
I’ve been waiting a long time to see this movie, curious as to how Jackson would pull it off. Not only is he attempting to add another entry into his Middle Earth franchise, he’s attempting to add three films based on a short novel with a tone so alien to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it feels like they take place in a different world.
There are problems with this film – some glaring ones – but I’m happy to say that tone is not one of them. Sure The Hobbit makes you question whether this is the same world that Frodo Baggins begins his quest on 60 years later, but that’s quickly forgotten as Jackson once again immerses us in Middle Earth. And this time, he’s got a bag of new tricks.
I am referring, of course, to his camera (the RED Epic), his frame rate (48 frames per second), and his immersive 3D experience. Let’s start at the top.
When this movie begins, something will feel off. The image will look far too slick and way too real. This is the effect of Jackson’s use of high frame rates. I’ll explain real quick for the casual reader: Traditionally, movies are shot in 24 frames a second. This means that, for every second, the camera is recording 24 frames, or pictures. When you put 24 of those pictures in a sequence, you have a moving image. For the first time in a major motion picture, Jackson has decided to shoot his film in 48 frames a second. This means that twice the amount of information is being carried in a single second. When you play those 48 frames back (which still last one second), the image looks and feels a lot different.
Such is the case for The Hobbit, but it’s really only the first 10 minutes that will make you make you feel uncomfortable. And, as I’ll get to later, the first 10 minutes aren’t much of a spectacle anyway. Once the film starts going, your eyes adjust easily and the technology begins to assist in the storytelling. Battle scenes feel more intense, subtle movements are more pronounced, and grand shots are all the more epic.
Combine that with his incredible use of camera and 3D and you got yourself one hell of a visual piece. But then you figure: Wait a second. This is still supposed to be a story. Let’s get back to that.
You know how sometimes, when you can’t fall asleep, you keep turning over and over for hours? And with every turn, you tell yourself: This is it. I’m going to fall asleep now. Well that’s how the first half of this movie felt for me. I kept telling myself this is where it was going to pick up. Where I was going to be swept away. But that didn’t come. Not for awhile at least.
I think this is partially due to Jackson’s constant referring back to the Lord of the Rings trilogy – a move he doesn’t need to make but constantly does. The first twenty minutes – well I don’t want to give anything away – but let’s just say there’s a lot of The Fellowship involved. But the thing is: The Hobbit lives perfectly on its own. Its worst moments were when it tried to wink at the audience, referring to its other films. “Remember in the The Two Towers when…?”
The other problem with the first half was its overuse of exposition, which led to a serious pacing problem. I only wonder how they’re going to reintroduce all of these facts in the two upcoming movies. But Jackson did this before, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
But then all of a sudden, it happened. Right in the middle. I was hooked. All at once, all the elements of the film – its campiness, its sensibilities, its tone, its pacing, its acting, its camera, its action – all started working together. From there to the end (trust me: this is a very long movie), I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
The Hobbit is filled with rich characters and a much more idealistic perception of the world than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Its cast is led by Martin Freeman (playing the hero Bilbo Baggins). Freeman instills in Bilbo a wonderful sense of curiosity, a desperate longing for the status-quo, and a thirst for something great. What’s better is that is he able to do this without over-action and without embellishment – but really just with his eyes. At one point, I started to pay attention to how much was being conveyed by Freeman – whether it was humor or sadness or courage or fear – simply through his eyes. And in that sense, Freeman proves to be the perfect tool for The Hobbit – an idealist, an optimist, and a naive sense of hope.
Filled to the brim with rousing emotion and larger-than-life set pieces, I was constantly wondering why New Line was distributing the film in December – in the heat of awards season – rather than during summer, blockbuster season. Because The Hobbit often feels more like a video game than a film. It’s covered wall-to-wall with music and slammed with moments the audience can cheer and clap at. It doesn’t feel like we’re supposed to take it seriously. Perhaps this is because the book it’s based on is meant for younger audiences. But regardless of the reason, it’s a very fun ride.
And apart from a slightly contrived/deus ex machina climax, The Hobbit is a huge win for audiences. Visually stunning and popcorn-friendly, The Hobbit – though tonally inconsistent with the Lord of the Rings trilogy – is a movie that can stand on its own.
I can’t wait for the next one.