See Middle Earth as you never have before in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Much fuss has been made of this prequel to the monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy, beginning with numerous production delays that saw the loss of funding and a director (Guillermo del Toro, who stayed on as producer). Then came word that returning director Peter Jackson would be filming The Hobbit at 48 fps (frames per second), making it the first feature-length film to ever be shot at such a rate. Early sneak previews of scenes worried audience members, who complained that the picture was too crisp, making the movie look like a soap opera and thus not good. While there is no question that the picture quality is clearer than any film I’ve ever seen, I don’t find any credence in the claim that this diminishes the experience of the film. In fact, The Hobbit was the most fun I’ve ever had in 3D.
Jackson forces us to acclimate to this new, high-resolution filmmaking immediately, opening The Hobbit with a fast-paced montage that concludes with Smaug, a fire-breathing dragon, destroying a dwarf kingdom. This opening makes use of numerous depth-of-field shots that highlight the separation between foreground and background, pans that sweep across mountains of gold, and explosive action that has bricks falling all around us. We will see much more of this as the film continues, but this opening scene preps us and familiarizes us with the new technology. This sequence can be disorienting for many and will help you decide very early whether you’d like to continue watching in 3D 48 fps or if you’d like to hop out of the theater and buy a 2D ticket.
Regardless of whether you stay with the 3D 48 fps (which I’m begging you to do) or revert to 2D, you are in for a spectacle. Our story begins sixty years before Frodo (Elijah Wood) set off on his journey, with a young hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Bilbo is an easy-going fellow, content with smoking a pipe on a bench outside his hobbit-hole, looking out over the beautiful Shire where he resides. Freeman is an excellent choice for the gentle Bilbo, with a face that looks like it’s hardly ever been cut shaving, let alone cut in battle. But that will change shortly, as Bilbo is somewhat unwillingly recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to share in a most dangerous adventure. The dwarves that were expelled from their land by Smaug are planning to reclaim their rightful home. While the thirteen dwarves, led by the pensive Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), have many talents such as belching, eating, and the ability to perform impromptu musical numbers about cleaning dishes, they require the help of a hobbit to sneak in to the Kingdom of Erebor.
Thus the epic begins, and since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is only part one of three, don’t expect our company to get very far by the end of the film. While Smaug is set up to be the big baddie, we never get a good look at him, save for some teasing glances. This time around, our primary antagonists are the orcs we are already familiar with from the previous films. One in particular is a nasty, pale behemoth that killed Thorin’s father in battle and swears to have the same fate fall upon Thorin.
The simple plot and obvious categorization of characters makes The Hobbit short on depth but also keeps it light on its feet. It’s been too long since a good, pure fantasy film was made, and sometimes we just need to escape to a world of wizards to watch good guys fight bad guys. Battle scenes are beautifully rendered (incredible in 3D 48 fps, still probably breathtaking in 2D), and the action is mostly clear enough to be able to tell who’s fighting whom. One particularly exquisite sequence has our travelling group caught in the middle of a battle between stone giants that lumber, crumble, and shatter so fiercely that their sounds are confused with thunder. Is the scene entirely necessary? Not really, as it doesn’t advance the plot in any special way. But as you’re taking in this magnificent show, you don’t find yourself questioning its place in the film. You just enjoy it.
The Hobbit delivers what hardcore LOTR fans will want. Middle Earth is alive and gorgeous thanks to stunning work by DP Andrew Lesnie. Ian McKellen is still great as the popular Gandalf, and Andy Serkis is back and hasn’t lost a step as Gollum. What may concern hardcore fans is the generally light-hearted tone that resonates throughout. While there’s plenty of gloom and doom, there’s also a fair deal of humor that occasionally borders on self-parody. If you’re used to the mostly stuffy atmosphere of the original trilogy (which wasn’t without humor, but not to this extent), you may be put off by this somewhat family-friendly fare. Of course, you can easily forget about it as orcs get their heads lopped off.
As someone who never got caught in the LOTR craze, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The length is excessive, and the pacing of the film would have benefited from a significant trimming. But despite the 2 hour, 50 minute runtime, I was energetically ready to watch the next two films. Unfortunately, we will have to wait a couple of years for the final chapters of this series to come.
My Rating: (8/10)
A NOTE ABOUT 3D 48 FPS: I didn’t go into much detail about my opinions of 48 fps in the body of the review because I didn’t want to distract myself or my readers from the critique of the film. So, let me talk about 48 fps in this postscript.
I hate 3D. I’ve always hated 3D. And I will continue to hate 3D. I think it is an entirely unnecessary gimmick done to pad movie studio bank accounts. Aside from that, I simply find 3D to be a distracting element that makes it hard to watch movies. When I view 3D films, I notice significant blur of character motions and backgrounds that make me feel as though my eyes are failing. I’ve been told that this blur is actually considered good, because in real life, when you look at one thing, everything else does appear blurry. That’s a nice thought, but I’m not going to a movie to replicate the experience of not being at the movies. I want a nice, clear picture to look at, and if the image blurs, I want it to be a creative choice by the director and his cinematographer, not the byproduct of a goofy technique.
Enter 48 fps, which is double the normal frame rate of a Hollywood film. If you aren’t familiar with frame rates, let me explain. Have you ever noticed how soap operas and British TV shows have a different, crisper look than American sitcoms or TV dramas? That’s because they are filmed at a higher frame rate. The higher the frame rate, the clearer the picture (in gross, basic terms). When 48 fps is applied to 3D as it was in The Hobbit, the picture clarity is almost surreal. Every single object on-screen is crystal clear, which many have found off-putting. I embrace this clean, fluid look as being more in the tradition of what I want from a film. I want to be able to see everything clearly. Since I didn’t have to struggle through motion blur, I found that I hardly had any eye strain, even after almost three hours.
I anticipate much resistance to 48 fps by audiences, and I don’t really care either way. Even though I was blown away by The Hobbit in 3D, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if the format disappeared tomorrow. It’s still gimmicky and unnecessary. But in the case of The Hobbit, it was done right. Whether you walk away from it hating it or loving it, I encourage you to see this film in 48 fps, just so you can educate yourself about it and be able to say that you experienced it. To find a 48 fps theater near you, click here.