by Coop Cooper
It’s been nearly ten years since New Zealand director Peter Jackson completed the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and released them to great international success. Now he has done the same for the prequel book “The Hobbit” which has been split into three movies and will be released yearly as was “Rings.” “An Unexpected Journey” is the first of these installments and has just been released in time for the holiday season.
The film begins during the first “Lord of the Rings” film “The Fellowship of the Ring” as Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is about have his birthday party in which he secretly plans to leave the Shire for one last adventure. Before he leaves, he prepares his memoirs for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) which chronicles his adventure 60 years before when he was a young man (Martin Freeman). The good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) had called upon him to join a band of exiled dwarf warriors. These dwarves were driven from their homeland by a gold-greedy dragon named Smaug and Gandalf surmised they could employ a Hobbit as a thief and a spy to help infiltrate their seized fortress. He recalled Bilbo being adventurous and stealthy years ago, but is disappointed to find that Bilbo has become settled and complacent. After a change of heart, Bilbo decides to join them on the adventure where they encounter wizards, elves, trolls, orcs, goblins and a very possessive ring bearer named Gollum.
I always considered the novel “The Hobbit” to be a sort of remedial, ‘young adult’ lead-in to the more mature and polished “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It is lighter, sillier and features more whimsical, non-human characters as compared to its sequels. It’s also a bit sloppy in the plot and characterization departments. This film version jazzes it up with updated special effects and very complex set pieces/action sequences. It even takes some of its inspiration from the 1977 animated musical adaptation of “The Hobbit,” but the sloppiness of the narrative remains.
For example, there are so many dwarf characters with identical names, it is near impossible to keep track of who they are. It’s far easier to remember which is the fat one, the old one, the one who is hard of hearing or the one who carries a bow. The only dwarf the viewer is really meant to remember is Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarf exiles. Although he is bitter and sullen, he is definitely hero material.
Gandalf’s reason for choosing Bilbo for this quest is thin and, even worse, he has no real explanation for it when the dwarves question him on it. Of course Bilbo doesn’t want to run off with strangers (he barely even remembers Gandalf) and risk his life when his cushy home and well-stocked pantry is so agreeable. This makes his random, sudden change of heart difficult to buy. On the road, he complains, can’t fight and contributes almost nothing until the final third of the film. He all but disappears from the entire middle of the story, you almost forget he is there.
Besides these problems the filmmakers inherited from the book, they did manage to make it an exciting spectacle, integrating many of the beloved characters from “Lord of the Rings,” played by the same actors. It is a worthy adaptation of the book, but the most controversial aspect of the film has nothing to do with the story, characters, actors, etc… The uproar in the filmmaker and critic circles are over HOW the film was shot.
Director Peter Jackson decided to pioneer a new 48 frames-per-second (fps) digital film speed in an attempt to persuade Hollywood and the world to adopt it as a new standard. Movies have traditionally been shot at 24 fps on physical film and was adopted as a standard for nearly a hundred years. Most people wouldn’t notice, but quick motion at 24 fps can be blurry and choppy. Once video had matured, camera operators began shooting sporting events at 60 fps, which was ideal for capturing crisp action. 60 fps could also be replayed for seamless slow-motion, but the visual aesthetic looked like cheap video as opposed to a traditional cinematic look. Digital camera innovators (like Jackson) have decided 48 fps could be the happy medium but critics and other filmmakers have claimed 48 fps makes much of “The Hobbit” look like it was shot on budget video cameras. Allegedly, it also reveals flaws in makeup and special effects which are less detectable at the traditional film speed.
I can’t attest to the quality of 48 fps as I saw it in a theater that did not have the updated projectors to show “The Hobbit” in its intended form. Instead the theater presented it de-converted back down to 24 fps and although I could tell something was off (a dim projector bulb, conversion flicker…), it wasn’t enough to bother me or disturb the experience for the casual viewer.
It is a fantastic spectacle and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5