The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I saw this last night at midnight, in 3D, and in the High Frame Rate, though not in IMAX. (How many formats is this thing available in?)

The Good

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. His performance was probably my favorite, as the tortured Dwarven would-be king on a mission to reclaim his throne. He had an uncompromising air that didn’t quite become petulant. Obviously this is a very similar role to Aragorn in LOTR, but Thorin definitely has a different flavor.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. I wasn’t super-surprised to like him. He’s a great actor and a funny guy. And I’ve already seen him as a playful, wary, iconic fish-out-of-water in the much under-appreciated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He fits into the big, furry feet so well you could imagine him tipping a half-pint with Pippin and Merry any old day of the week.

Andy Serkis as Gollum. Due to the quirk of the order these films were made, we see Gollum’s first appearance in literature as a kind of loving send off here. With all the future history we already have of the character, we can’t help but watch this first/last performance with a sort of awe. (At least, I assume Jackson didn’t find a way to shoehorn Gollum into the rest of the Hobbit films.)

Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett. Each of them plays their characters with a slightly different feel from the last time we saw them, which makes sense, since this is sixty years before LOTR. Saruman is simply pedantic, not evil. Elrond is open, not haunted. And Galadriel is more playful.

The effects. Okay, wow. Remember how impressed you were when you saw how they handled the size differences between the hobbits and Gandalf? This is better. Much better. Seamless. The trolls are still fake looking, but really good fake-looking. And Azog the Defiler (a huge, pale, scarred orc with a grudge against Thorin) is a remarkable piece of technical engineering. The wolves are still the least impressive effect. (Not sure why wolves remain unperfected by movie magicians, considering how often they’ve tried.)

The Bad

Yes, the first half is a bit of a slog. It’s a fun slog, but this should have been trimmed. I don’t need the big rock giant battle (it seemed tacked on). I don’t need quite so much Radagast (a confrere of Gandalf with a bit of a personality problem).

On the other hand, I would have liked a bit more Rivendell. When Bilbo leaves, looking back at it longingly, I don’t think as a filmmaker, Jackson earned that moment. Bilbo was barely in the place on screen, and only kind of looked at it wonderingly. I wanted him to enjoy the place more, knowing how he’ll spend a fair amount of his retirement there, eventually.

Too much danger. There are some sequences (notably the escape from the orcs at the end) which would simply be impossible to survive. (Jackson had the same problem with King Kong.) Back on LOTR, the least likely escape was during the flight from the Balrog, when a bridge collapsed in just the right way to save our heroes. I loved that moment. In this film, there are a dozen moments like that, and the suspension of disbelief stops working. Now it’s just an exercise in chaos choreography.

Also, minor point, but why do two of the dwarves not have fake noses? I found that distracting.

The Two-Edged Sword

No, not Glamdring or Orcrist. I’m referring to the 48 frames per second presentation. It might, someday, become the standard, and people will look at 24 fps the same way I look at black and white. But I think it’s mixed bag. Yes, I appreciate being able to see such an extraordinary amount of detail. And ignore those other reviews that say the format makes the sets and the makeup look bad. It doesn’t. They look awesome.

But it lends everything a cheapness that I associate with television. Sometimes I felt like I was watching the most impressive BBC miniseries ever. It simply doesn’t feel like a movie. The crispness of the images also undercuts the more epic special effects. The eye simply never sees objects that large with that level of clarity, so when things like castles or rock giants are rendered at so fine a level of detail, even the best model simply looks like the best model. The chase sequences at the end in particular felt like cut scenes from a video game.

The Result

This is far from the best film of the year. It’s also far from the best film in the LOTR series, but it was enjoyable and diverting, and I suspect the sheer amount of action left in The Hobbit novel will make the next two films more exciting overall.

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