The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Review

Well, the verdict is in and High-Frame Resolution (HFR) 48 FPS - not so good.

Warner Brothers Pictures
174 Mins. Dir. By: Peter Jackson with,
Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Ian McKellen

Peter Jackson and company brought a series of books to the big screen that many thought to be un-filmable when they struck gold with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Returning to the world of J. R. R. Tolkien by tackling the precursor novel to The Lord of the Rings and its appendices, Jackson brings back all the charm and wonderment of Tolkien’s mystical world, and then crushes it under the obtrusive fist of the films HFR (High Frame resolution) 48 FPS presentation.

Bilbo Baggins (the always wonderful Martin Freeman) leads a simple life that he doesn’t care to see change. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, the great wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) has signed Bilbo up to take part in a perilous journey for which he is ill equipped. Gandalf has agreed to help a group of thirteen dwarves reclaim their home from the great dragon Smaug. To complete their plans of re-capturing their home, Gandalf has convinced the dwarves they need a Hobbit to fulfill the role of, burglar; someone who can sneak in and out of the dragon’s lair without being detected. Reluctant to join up at first, Bilbo has a change of heart and heads off on the adventure of a lifetime.

Much like a docudrama, The Hobbit loses heaps of dramatic tension as we all know certain characters will not meet their untimely doom when caught in a sticky situation. That dumbfounded awe and power of discovering the nooks and crannies of Middle-Earth and its colorful array of inhabitants has faded. The story has changed and the goal is different in specifics alone. Little people doing big things, the naive hero learning the world expands past his fence, the wise guide who doesn’t disclose what he really knows; it still holds a modicum of entertainment, but holds no surprises. A movie doesn’t need nail biting tension to make it a success, but The Hobbit certainly tries to sell the angle too many times to ignore.

Story is everything when it comes to a great film. I’ll never stopped saying it–a film can have a great story and succeed through spotty cinematography or poor sound, yet the newfangled 48FPS style of The Hobbit is the exception to the rule. The Lord of the Rings trilogy took digital effects to new heights making creatures we all know don’t exist, look real. The Hobbit on the other hand, takes real people and makes them appear fake. The sharp detail and fluid 3D aspects work well, but the entire film looks like a made for T.V. movie rendered into a video game cinematic instead of a stunning display of glorious eye candy. Characters often move at odd speeds, as if someone sat on a remote’s fast forward button or like a buffering video catching up after it stalls. The visual disruption of The Hobbit is so distracting it was hard to focus on the dialogue of the film’s two openings.

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The fear has set in that Peter Jackson may fall into the George Lucas trap.  Jackson is a far better director than Lucas ever was, but like the original Star Wars films (Lucas as a director or not), The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a milestone in cinematic history that marked an evolution in digital effects and created a marker for younger generations to adore as the defining moment in film for their childhood. Now, just like Lucas, tacky inconsequential visual styles and fancy technology have become more important to Jackson than telling a good story. It’s not so much that the HFR delivery affects his ability to tell the story, as it completely ends up deflating every aspect of the movie from that story to its stunted sense of whimsical joy.

As the film pressed along and my eyes adjusted, things did progress a little. The entire second half of the film has some great little vignettes as the team of small warriors fall into the hands of the Goblin King and Bilbo runs into our old friend Gollum, which leads to him obtaining a certain ring. Even through the unnatural character movements of the HFR process, Gollum is more impressive than ever. With even more of actor Andy Serkis’ real face bleeding through the twisted creature’s digital features, the battle of wits between Bilbo and Gollum is playfully silly while resting on a layer of terrifying uneasiness.

Ian McKellan isn’t the only familiar face returning to Middle-Earth, of course. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood are all back in this installment. In another example of a prequel being affected by our knowledge of films/novels we’re familiar with, it’s hard not to set aside any ill feelings one might have for Christopher Lee as Saruman. When The Hobbit was written, he was still very much a highly respected “good guy.” Knowing that he becomes corrupted by Sauron’s re-emergence, changes the situations at hand when he is on screen. For the other recurring characters though, we do get to see a slightly different side of them at times. I’d say it’s almost awkward to see a happier, kinder Lord Elrond. Personally, I was also happy to see Flight of the Conchords’ Brett Mackenzie reprise his role as a nameless elf. He gets a bit more featured time here; go Brett.

It’s hard to tell if The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would be a different movie if it were presented in a format that simply looks better than this HFR garbage. A film’s presentation shouldn’t play such a contributing factor in its ability to satisfy an audience, but there’s just no escaping the misfire it causes to a film series that became an instant classic. Put The Hobbit next to any of the original three films and it looks like the direct-to-DVD knock-off with a slightly different name meant to trick you into a purchase. The Hobbit will still entertain its audience, but will never live down the stigma of its technological failure. When you buy your tickets for The Hobbit, make sure you see the 24fps version and only pay for the HFR if you are still that curious about how bad it really looks.

Grade: C+
Rating: 65/100