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Nine years after the completion of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Line and MGM returned from the well with a film version of Tolkien's The Hobbit, the first saga of Middle Earth published in 1937. For several years a production effort by the talented Guillermo del Toro was in the works, and it's a shame that that director's unique vision never saw the light of day. The Hobbit instead found its way back to Peter Jackson and his Kiwi production company WingNut, and the WETA effects company that scooped up all of the Academy's special effects Oscars for three years straight.
Each of the three The Lord of the Rings books is longer than the book The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, so it makes sense to turn them into a lengthy trilogy. Ralph Bakshi's animated attempt back in 1979 jammed half the narrative into one movie, resulting in a wholly unsatisfactory mess. For The Hobbit, the opposite was done -- the 300-page book has been expanded to three movies as well, so the Tolkien franchise can continue as the box office Gift that Keeps On Giving. This time Jackson and his writers had to expand Tolkien's narrative, not trim it. Backstories told in passing are now fully visualized, and characters from later in the tale are introduced earlier. According to Peter Jackson, material from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings has been incorporated into the expanded storyline. In at least one instance, new scenes have been invented. In other words, Jackson has been given more opportunities for creative input. Theatrically The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was met with mixed critical reactions and a fair amount of fan grousing on the Internet. But it was still a must-see event, and it raked in the cash. It's a far more adept franchise extension than George Lucas' dreadful Star Wars prequels. Of course, they were phenomenally successful as well. However it works out, kids won't be able to take a short cut to a book report on The Hobbit by watching the movies. Screening the videos is almost as big of a time investment as reading the book.
Staying with Peter Jackson and Co. does bring continuity to this prequel to the Middle Earth saga. Beloved characters like Ian McKellen's Gandalf and Andy Serkis' Gollum are present, as are a familiar elf or two. The original Frodo and Bilbo (Elijah Wood & Ian Holm) help launch us into the flashback, a mere sixty years earlier. We meet the slightly younger Bilbo, played marvelously by Martin Freeman. Bilbo is the soul of Hobbit-dom, and actually a more engaging adventurer than the alternately naíve or tormented Frodo. It also helps, I suppose, that the 'adventure' is a little less grave than that of LOTR. Bilbo jogs off to share a 'big experience' with likeable friends. He's not immediately burdened with the responsibility of saving the world from All-Devouring Evil ™.
The one drawback is that most events in Unexpected Journey are overly familiar, at least in this first episode. The quest begins, long lines of happy campers trek through incredible mountainous landscapes (wouldn't it be faster to walk in the valleys?) and the story settles into the old pattern: monster encounter, chase, rest stop, another battle encounter, rest, sojourn with the Elfin Folk, and a cascading series of hairy battles and chases before the finale. That of course does not count the opening flashback to the destruction of the dwarves' mountain kingdom by an un-opposable flying fire-breathing dragon, who wants nothing better than to evict Prince Thorin's entire people and slumber beneath the mountain's enormous reservoir of glittering gold.
Did you say you like dwarves? Jackson and company deliver. Assembling before our eyes is a rum crew of diminutive warriors, all of whom come with outrageous facial hair, good hearts, gross habits and fighting skills that equal the CGI Yoda. It's a good thing that we never find out what these guys smell like. Prince Thorin's (Richard Armitage) favorite pastime is brooding murderously over old grievances, and thus serves as a good humorless foil to the meek Bilbo and the amusingly eccentric Gandalf. Although there are only thirteen dwarves on this quest, I seem to remember the book The Hobbit introducing dozens of them, all with names, too. 1
Although the dwarves are fine adventure companions, Unexpected Journey lacks variety. There are fewer kinds of characters, and no humans per se - I'm told that Gandalf is a being called a Maiar. There is no romance, and not really any significant female presence. We interact with some elves and with the known quantity Gollum (who apparently doesn't age after possessing the ring). The amusing wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) is a nice break, as is his crack team of sled-hares. We even enjoy the tender care Radagast gives a cute hedgehog. But these are mostly tangential characters, like Cate Blanchett's Galadriel and Christopher Lee's Saruman, whose little discussion appears to be dialed in from a separate London shoot.
Fans that object to deviations from the book object to Radagast's cutesy rabbits and hedgehog. They cite the alteration of relationships between dwarves and elves, and heretical changes to the characters of Azog the Defiler and the Goblin King. It's the end of only the first chapter in the trilogy, and already Bilbo has bloomed into a proven warrior and courageous comrade. They'll have to introduce new conflicts within Thorin's expeditionary force, as the few brought up in Unexpected Journey are already resolved.
The only complaint I'd have about the story telling style, is that Unexpected Journey could do with fewer swooping aerial shots of landscapes. But the show has its highlights, too. The three trolls are a bickering trio of gross monsters that behave like The Three Stooges. The Goblin King is also amusing, with his fleshy goiter. The chase and battle action is sometimes brilliant but often really over the top, as with the colossal mountain giants that thrash and smash our cringing dwarves, none of which receives as much as a scratch. In fact, Thorin's dwarf comrades win the prize for Teflon gallantry and just plain toughness. Every time the group is cornered by orcs or goblins or what-have-you, they end up slaying them by the dozens.
The Extended Version material doesn't add as much as did the extended cuts for LOTR. We have more goofball antics in Bilbo's house, naked dwarves bathing in an elfin fountain, and some jolly singing. The Goblin King belches out the equivalent of a Music Hall performance. As a non-Tolkien insider, I found the King's performance to be a delightful break from the format (I have also been reminded that there's a lot of singing in the book, too). Just when the Goblin musical number threatens to turn into a dreaded Ewok festival from Lucas-land, relief arrives in yet another violent battle. If only the Ewoks got wiped out like these GoblinsÉ I'd pay to see that.
The bottom line is that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is somewhat padded, and perhaps insufficiently varied in content. Personally, I enjoyed it well enough in the theater. But I could tell that most of the details weren't going to stick, and that I would need to see it again before proceeding to the next installment.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is 3-D production, which surely added to the difficulty of putting together a movie composed 99% of computer-altered images. I've given up believing that I can tell when something on screen is real, and when it is a CG construction. The visual miracles here are so consistent that if something impresses, it's because it's well conceived and directed, not because it looks "real". A few of the Rube Goldberg-like gags in the Goblin battle are inventive, but there are no bravura show-stopper set pieces like the Tyrannosaurus battle in Jackson's King Kong. We'll be looking to parts two and three to see if Jackson can equal, or maybe even top, the exhilarating and emotional highlights of LOTR.
Warner Home Video's 3-D + Blu-ray + UltraViolet disc set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition is yet another monumental job of work -- to see such a complicated set of discs turn out so flawlessly makes one hope that the authoring, menuing and QC people behind them are well paid.
Just in case the price seems a bit steep, know that there are five discs in the only slightly fatter keep case. The first two contain the Blu-ray 3-D encoding of the show, in two parts. Disc three has the flat Blu-ray version, the one I have reviewed. This version is encoded with the commentaries by the filmmakers, plus a featurette about the cast and crew being helicoptered out to location. Just as I was thinking that maybe this was sponsored by the New Zealand Tourist Commission, one of the actors said something to the effect of, "this show should be used by the New Zealand Tourist Commission!" 2
Disc four contains hours of video diary entries made during the making of the picture, a la the promotional teasers on the previous Jackson opus King Kong that were once sold as stand-alone DVDs. And Disc five is home to the official featurettes that cover the inception, development, filming and effects of the show. Do expect to see a lot of actors performing against green screens. I checked here and there and did NOT discover an explanation of what happened to the Guillermo del Toro production effort. Del Toro has hinted it was creative differences -- he felt he was being pressured into following Peter Jackson's vision rather than his own. With so much of the groundwork already established, I must admit that for pure efficiency, it does make sense for Jackson, WingNut and WETA to make this second trilogy as well.
A year ago the many formats in which Unexpected Journey was released to theaters made big news, a lot of it negative: flat and 3-D versions circulated in multiple formats, and also a special version projected at 48 frames per second. Various tech progressives, especially James Cameron, have been touting higher frame rates as the next step in the evolution of film exhibition. The idea with 48fps is to cram twice as many discrete images into each second, which makes fast action far easier to follow. Douglas Trumbull's 70mm Showscan film process experimented with fast frame rates and got good results.
It's not very useful to say that 48fps looks like 'reality'. Just jumping to the 30 frames per second video standard puts more information on screen and affects the quality of motion. 30fps film looks quite a bit like video, especially when we see crackling flames or pouring water. The much higher frame rate for Unexpected Journey results in less granularity and sharper contrast. Technically, things no longer look like film... for the first few minutes. I was jolted by the opening reel of Unexpected Journey just like everybody else. But I didn't feel like I "was on the set instead of watching a movie", because Middle Earth is already too artificial to cause that kind of confusion. An early, sunny market scene in the dwarf town looked bad, mostly because it was so bright, with highlights totally blown out. It didn't look like real daylight, but interior light dialed up artificially (I could be dead wrong with that guess). Here on the Blu-ray, the facial highlights in that same scene are burned out. At 48fps, exiting a dark cave into the sunlight makes one wince.
The higher frame rate did have a positive effect on scenes with fast motion. All of the crazed action in the battles was more readable: more information was present, with less blurring to obscure detail. I fall back on the example of a flamenco performance. A normal 24fps shot of a flamenco dancer's clacking heels is pointless, as the boots are moving so fast that all is a blur and sync is totally lost. At 48fps there would surely still be blurring, but it would be much less. Even if a heel hits the floor four times in that second, we're going to see it happen -- subconsciously, the images will be there.
The way the press and TV pundits attacked the 48fps Unexpected Journey, one would think Jackson had thrown stink bombs in the theaters. Ordinary news anchors took time out to tell people to avoid those shows. Articles by critics who should know better couldn't fathom why Jackson would go to all the trouble for such a bad result -- they hated the look and said it no longer resembled a movie. I think most of this chatter was a case of innovation resistance and copycat opinionizing. The killer put-down came from David Letterman. Once he made a running joke out of it, every pundit chimed in with snarky remarks.
Jackson had too much class to tell them all where to head in. 48fps is a bold new idea that will find its place in good time, and it's boorish to pillory the filmmaker brave enough to try it out. I believe that James Cameron is still committed to high frame rate encoding and projection for his next Avatar movie. It's obviously not suited for all film and movie subjects, and it may only be around for certain high-end shows, as was 70mm. But digital projection makes possible a great variety of format alterations, without rebuilding theaters or installing new screens: Cinerama, anyone? My personal verdict is that The Hobbit was perhaps not the best debut subject for 48fps, which put a strain on some of the special effects. I was surprised to see that a number of the (painted?) views of the elf city looked atypically phony and flat in 48fps, as if the characters were staring at a so-so storybook illustration. A better image certainly requires more perfect makeup effects, costumes and props. That's perhaps why a 48fps show filmed on ordinary streets might fare better. A Jackie Chan- style action movie, with fast action and many outlandish stunts, might be a good place to start.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I read the entire book to my 4th grader four pages at a time while waiting for his school bus, you see. To me it read like Snow White and the 147 Dwarves. I admit to having been lost beyond hope in the complex story, not knowing that my boy was consulting his older brother and sister about the Tolkien universe. He understood who Gollum was, while I certainly didn't.
2. Thirty years ago I worked on TV spots for the airline Air New Zealand, which sent us reels of special stock aerial footage taken over devastatingly beautiful, magical-looking Kiwi landscapes. The jingle used in our ads was a sweet-sounding melody with these lyrics: "We're Air New Zealand, we fly the Pa - ci - fic!" My version, which I foolishly sang in front of the clients on day, was "We're Air New Zealand, we fly nowhere Spe - ci - fic!"
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T'was Ever Thus.