The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I’ve seen the Hobbit twice now, once with friends at the midnight premiere in 48fps 3D, and at a Saturday matinee with London in old-fashioned 24fps 2D.

It is simply not possible to review this movie as if I was seeing it with no preconceptions; for one thing, I know too much Tolkieniana, and for another, my expectations were colored by having seen and mostly loved Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy–which I suspect is true for at least half the population of the planet. I expected the visuals to be extremely impressive, and I was steeling myself for the story to be a bit of a letdown, mostly because of the invented storylines stuffed into The Two Towers. I was doubly on guard because, again like almost everyone who will see this movie, I knew that the Hobbit had grown from two movies to three and was going to incorporate bits from the extensive appendices at the end of LOTR.

One last thing before getting into the actual review part: I’ve read the Hobbit three or four times in full. The first time would have been around the age of 12, the second in high school, and the third in 2001 when I reread the Hobbit and LOTR in preparation for Fellowship. I’ve only read the book once more, about a year and a half ago, when I read it aloud to my son over the course of a month or so. Until that most recent read-through, I had forgotten how much stuff happens in the book, and how much of it happens after Bilbo and party reach the Lonely Mountain.

Story

I haven’t read the LOTR appendices so although I knew what bits weren’t in the Hobbit, but of the added bits I could not tell what was invention and what was from the appendices (and in fact still cannot). This is actually the highest compliment I can pay the screenwriters; the invented stuff in LOTR stuck out so badly because it was so glaringly against the spirit of Tolkien’s writing (I’m looking at you, “Foromir”). I would have preferred Radagast to be a bit more Na’vi (quiet dignity, one with nature and all that) and less of a loony, but I can’t say that he’s anti-Tolkien in spirit (and now I’m looking at you, Tom Bombadil). Playing up the whole Azog/Thorin nemesis thing was a bit Hollywood but maybe only struck me that way because I knew that their confrontation was not in the book; I can see someone who is familiar with LOTR but not the Hobbit mistaking it for part of the book (and, as I can’t say enough times, I don’t know what’s all in the appendices, maybe Azog is there and is a big deal, I just know Thorin didn’t face him down in the book).

One thing I absolutely loved was getting to see the dwarves as competent adventurers and badasses in battle, which unfortunately we did not get nearly enough of in LOTR since Gimli was mostly played as a clumsy oaf. Erebor was also very convincingly realized as the greatest dwarven kingdom in Middle-Earth.

Visually the movie was almost unsettlingly seamless with LOTR. Since we’ve already spent so many hours in Jackson’s Middle-Earth, it’s easy to take it for granted, and merely ho-hum when we should be gobsmacked. Dunno how much that’s a problem, though, since I was plenty gobsmacked. I was nervous about the storm giants and extremely nervous about the three trolls, but I thought both sequences worked out quite well. Watching the movie I often thought of Zak’s line about LOTR, that “Jackson seemed–with gratifyingly few exceptions–to choose the most metal and least hippie possible interpretation of any given scene” (except, obviously, during the Radagast scenes).

Projection Mode

Two things about the 48fps showing. First, the picture was waaaay sharper than I was expecting. I suppose this is because the lack of jerkiness and jump between frames allows the eye to focus on smaller details, even though the individual frames are not at any higher resolution. In fact, it verged on being too much–sometimes it was distracting, because I was looking at pine needles or grass stems when I should have been watching wargs, and sometimes it was almost exhausting, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is visually exhausting–there’s just too damn much to look at in every direction all the time.

Second, and not so hot: the picture was unnaturally bright, all the time. The entire movie looked like it was shot as a soap opera. That was also distracting, and frankly irritating. When I saw the movie the second time, at 24fps, I could immediately tell that the picture was inferior–I could see that it was jerky where  the 48fps had been smooth, and motion-blurred where the latter had been crisp. But the lighting was right–or, at least, it was what I am used to–and after about 5 minutes I forgot about the projection entirely and just enjoyed the movie. Which is not something that ever happened with the 48fps version–all the way through I was constantly thinking, “Damn, that picture is sharp” and “Damn, that lighting sucks”.

So. Assuming that there is some technical fix for this, so that we can have the sharpness of the 48fps picture without the soap-opera lighting, I would take it every time. But if not, forget it. I go to movies to enjoy a story, not be distracted from the story by the picture.

Other reviews that surprised me, or made me think, or were otherwise enjoyable: Mike’s review, Zak’s review.

 

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5 Responses to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. More smart people saying it is good – good! Because this will be my (and the wife’s) first cinema visit in 6 years.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Yes, Azog is in the Appendices. (I think they merit a capital “A”.) But there, he is safely dead by the end of the Battle of Azanulbizar, many years before the events of The Hobbit. (Thorin was at that battle, and fought well, but wasn’t involved in the killing of Azog.)

    For the record, I think what Jackson did here is a perfectly reasonable extrapolation of the Tolkien back-matter. It’s the rabbit-sleigh that bothers me.

  3. Andrei Vajna says:

    Azog’s death is also mentioned in The Hobbit. Thorin curses his name for having killed his grandfather and it’s also mentioned that Dain killed Azog in Moria.

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    Well, I hope that now Matt and I have both recommended it, you don’t come away disappointed. (Ironic that you find yourself dependent on reviews by Matt and me, just at the same time as the converse happens!)

  5. I did appreciate the irony of the situation when I sent the review 😉

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