Attempting to replicate one’s past glories is a tricky thing. In show business, success mostly tends to be being in the right place, at the right time, with the exact material people are thirsty for at that very moment. To put it another way, capturing the proverbial lighting in a bottle is more often an accident rather then an intention. George Lucas’ attempt to recapture magic of a bygone era with his Star Wars prequels continues to be the textbook example of how not to go about chasing that elusive lightning.
Peter Jackson’s first film in his new Hobbit Trilogy is certainly no Phantom Menace, but it’s no Fellowship of the Ring either. To paraphrase the now famous Boromir meme, “One does not simply return to Middle Earth.”
Now, before it seems like I’m all down on the film, I’m not. There is a lot to love here. In fact, here’s the trailer.
The casting, as always, is near perfection. Martin Freeman is a wonderful Bilbo Baggins (and if you haven’t seen him as Watson in the new Sherlock BBC series, get on it!), the dwarves are personable, and who doesn’t enjoy Ian McKellen chewing up the scenery as Gandalf?
There are jaw dropping, beautifully rendered landscapes, and a dwarf mine that is as impressive as anything WETA Workshop has ever produced. The time spent with James Cameron crafting Avatar has resulted in some of the most realistic digital characters I’ve ever witnessed. Remember how ground breaking Gollum was in the original trilogy? Here, we don’t even question that he’s a CGI creation. Gollum’s just there, as real as the hobbit he’s attempting to outwit in a game of riddles. Hat’s off.
But here’s the real problem I had with the film. It’s too long. There, I said it. I’ll say something else. I blame the DVD extended editions of the first trilogy. Granted - The extended editions were among the finest DVD box sets ever released, and they were rightly snapped up by fans in huge numbers. With this new film, we got the extended edition instead of the theatrical cut. The film runs two hours and 45 min. There is a tight, two hour film in here somewhere, and I wish Jackson had been a little more conservative with the material. Perhaps because of all the outcries of fans over passages left out of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has over corrected by giving us too much.
To be fair, Jackson and his writing team have done a creditable job of trying to fold all that happens here into the fabric of the existing Lord of the Rings films. There are well-crafted nods to the horrors coming to Middle Earth that don’t exist in Tolkien’s novel, and I found them to be a welcome addition.
Now, about that frame rate increase...
If you are old enough, perhaps you will recall the very first time you went to the movies and sat through Toy Story. At the time, it was revolutionary to make a full length movie from computer generated images. I had never seen anything quite like it, and it took a little getting used to, but by the end of the film, I was won over. I can’t say the same thing about the 48fps (frames per second), or “HFR” (High Frame Rate) process used on The Hobbit.
We’ve been watching film projected at 24 frames per second for the better part of a century. Film is a technology-driven art form, and it’s been evolving since day one. Cameras got better, film stocks improved, wider lens, sound, color. Computers pushed things even further by replacing traditional optical effects with CGI visual effects. Digital photography and digital projection mean we can now start playing with frame rates.
What does 48fps look like?
If you own a flat screen, High Definition television with “motion smoothing” technology, you already know. It’s sort of like watching a live telecast of a well staged play. The actors just look like people wearing costumes and the visual effects work, while amazing, has a weird video game feel to it. Everything looks super sharp and clean. I have to admit that this really took me out of the overall experience. I found the process to be distracting and far less enchanting then the dreamlike quality that traditional 24fps lends itself to. I really wanted to get lost in this world, but I couldn’t get past the “live” feeling the 48fps brought to the overall experience. I won’t be seeing the rest of the films in this format.
All in all, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is a pleasant experience. It’s probably not gonna knock your socks off like the first time around, but that doesn't mean it sucks either. A bit more editing would have been welcome, but that’s my opinion. I’m honestly curious where Jackson is planning to take all of this, and look forward to the next installment.