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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It's the Hobbit. What more needs to be said?

As a special bonus for readers of this blog though, I have also included a review of the new technology that has been used in the filming and, in some cinemas, projecting of The Hobbit that - spoiler warning - has me longing for the days when crappy 3D was the worst of my problem. 

For my tech-free review of the film, check out Channel 24.  

What it's about

Set sixty years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tells the story of Bilbo Baggins' first encounter with Gandalf The Grey as the two join forces with a group of dwarves to reclaim the dwarves' home from the dragon Smaug.

What we thought

Before diving into the film itself, there is a certain technical detail associated with, and adding to the hype of, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that has to be dealt with first. Admittedly, most screens in South Africa are not equipped for this “radical technological revolution” but, considering that it represents what may well be the start of a new trend for cinema, it desperately needs addressing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first feature film to ever be shot and projected at 48 frames per second, which is double the industry standard of 24 frames per second. This might sound like the sort of thing that only hardcore film geeks would care about, but it vastly changes the way the film looks. According to the hype, this “revolutionary” way of filming and projecting a film vastly increases the quality of the picture, while apparently solving the “clipping” problem that comes with rapid motion in 3D films.

And, to be fair, the picture is a bit clearer – too bad it comes at such a high price. The reason I need to spend so long on this subject before getting onto the film itself is because, regardless of what I think of this return to Middle Earth itself, seeing The Hobbit in 48 frames per second was one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I have ever had in a cinema.

It wasn't enough that I was stuck having to wear those stupid glasses for nearly three hours for some of the most pointless and barely used 3D I've had to endure this year, the thoroughly unnatural, super-fast frame rate ensured that my irritation quickly ballooned into a full-blown headache. I literally had to leave the cinema for a few minutes just to clear my head. Not only do many of the scenes, particularly ones that focus on only one or two characters, play out like they're moving in 1.5 time, the increased frame rate gives the whole film a look of artificiality and makes it look far less proficiently made than it actually is.

With that out of the way then, onto the film itself.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, in many ways, the quintessential Peter Jackson film. It's self-indulgent, far too long and often tedious, but it's also beautifully assembled, unquestionably cinematic and sporadically brilliant. It also has a number of nice performances and a refreshingly lighter tone than the frequently overly earnest Lord of the Rings films – though, of course, with no less walking.

The biggest problem at the heart of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that it is only the first near-three-hour-long installment in a a trilogy that has, as its source, a children's novel that, with large type and double spacing, barely manages to clock in at 360 pages. It's at most a third of the length of The Lord of The Rings trilogy in novel form, but it's being adapted into a series of films that will end up being almost as long as Jackson's already over-stretched Rings adaptations.

Corporate greed may well play a part in this, but if there is one guy who would take a short novel and turn it into three over-extended blockbusters, it would be Peter Jackson. What results is a film that may bear the Peter Jackson stamps of a striking visual design and a real sense of wonder, but it is also light on plot, surprisingly short on characterization and far too reliant on a succession of (admittedly well done) set pieces that never quite manages to hide the fact that there just isn't that much going on story-wise. It also may be par for the course for this sort of epic fantasy, but some of the dialogue is pretty wretched too.

The film also commits the cardinal sin of prequels in that, rather than allowing its own story to stand on its own terms, it constantly and clumsily crowbars in references to the later films. The Lord of the Rings never needed any back story so the decision to reposition The Hobbit as a really long preamble to those films is a frankly baffling mistake.

Fortunately, even with all these flaws and unfathomable misjudgements, there is at least enough good in the film to keep casual audiences satisfied and Tolkien fanboys thrilled. Martin Freeman, who has spent a career playing the likeable everyman is perfect as the self-confessed fuddy-duddy, Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen plays Gandalf with such mischievous enthusiasm that it's impossible not to be caught up in the fun.

Best of all though, unsurprisingly, is the return of the incomparable Andy Serkis as Gollum. Gollum was already by far the best thing about The Lord of the Rings and his scenes are easily the best here. I'm not sure if he appeared in the original text, as his scene here ties in quite strongly to The Lord of the Rings, but in this case its hard to quibble with his subplot. The entire scene comes across a bit like a darker, demonic version of Yoda's introduction in The Empire Strikes Back, mixed with smatterings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and an evil Donald Duck. It has next to nothing to do with everything else going on in the film, but it's still a terrific diversion.

Would that the rest of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was this much fun. As it is, it is sure to delight the faithful but those of us who have yet to be converted to the Church of Tolkien will probably be left wondering what all the fuss is about – certainly at 48 frames per second.

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