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Movie Curiosities -- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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There are so many places where I could begin with this blog entry. So many events over so many years have brought us to this point that it's no wonder this is one of the year's most anticipated movies. I could write a whole blog entry about my personal connection to the books and the prior films, particularly since my mom is an Aragorn fangirl and my grandfather is a Tolkien scholar (he's also an English professor at Eastern Washington University, by the way). I could write a whole series of blog entries about the prior trilogy, the awards and money they earned, and their effects on pop culture at large. A whole book could (and probably will) be written about the lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings, union interference, and other events that delayed the film's production again and again through the better part of a decade.

But no, I'm not going to start with any of that. All that water under the bridge is effectively meaningless now that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is finally in theaters. No, I'm going to start with something about this movie that's tremendously important now and will likely continue to be important for the next few years to come. I'm referring, of course, to the new practice of shooting at 48 frames per second, otherwise known as "high frame rate" (HFR).

A quick primer: Since pretty much the dawn of cinema, movies have traditionally been filmed at a rate of 24 frames (or still pictures, if you will) per second. However, that was decided back when movies were shot on the physical medium of film, which required time and energy to move through a camera and enough light exposure to create a decent image. The important point here is that there are some things that cameras cannot adequately capture with only 1/24th a second of exposure. This results in some loss of clarity, particularly when something is moving so fast that it appears only as a "motion blur."

Now, in the 21st century, the limitations of film are more or less things of the past. Such cinematic innovators as Peter Jackson and James Cameron have been working to push the envelope of digital photography, developing cameras that can shoot at faster speeds. Thus we have The Hobbit, the first movie shot entirely at 48 fps.

The reception could charitably be called mixed.

I've heard various reports stating that the presentation caused nausea, looked fake, interfered with the 3D, and so on. However, I think this reaction was to be expected. Of course such a huge transition would be difficult to some degree. As a direct result, WB has understandably been hedging its bets on this new innovation. Though the film is playing at 48 fps in some screens, the vast majority of theaters will be playing a version that was downgraded to 24 fps. This way, WB can make tons of money now, and -- if the HFR thing takes off -- they can re-release this film in HFR nationwide later on and make another ton of money then.

Personally, I was determined to see this film in HFR as quickly as possible. I wanted to see this film as it was meant to be seen and I wanted a chance to weigh in on the issue. My verdict: The technology needs work.

To elaborate, HFR was designed for clarity and for speed. The clarity is great for landscape shots, bringing unprecedented detail and color to sweeping vistas of New Zealand. The speed is also great for action sequences, delivering quick movements with crystal clarity devoid of motion blur. I should also add that the lack of blurring made the 3D look a great deal more immersive.

On the other hand, HFR is great for action sequences precisely because it's best with large and fast movements. Tiny and quick motions -- like lip movements or the flutter of clothing -- don't need that level of speed or detail. In fact, HFR actually works against the film in such cases: When Bilbo and Frodo are speaking to each other at Bag End early in the film, it looked like the film had been artificially sped up to a comical degree. Radagast the Brown is an even worse case in point. Sylvester McCoy played the character as a hyperactive and nervous man, and all of his nervous tics were utterly ruined by HFR. His whole performance was completely destroyed.

As for slow-motion, forget about it. Jackson tried a number of slo-mo sequences in this film and none of them carried the usual punch. Slow-motion, after all, depends on precisely the kind of blurring that HFR was designed to get rid of. It just flat doesn't work.

I read this article on the subject some time ago, and I completely agree with it. After seeing an entire film shot at 48 fps, I have no doubt that HFR isn't a "one size fits all" kind of tool. Ideally, it would be used for action sequences and landscape shots, with the slower and more intimate moments captured at a slower 24 fps. Even within the confines of a single shot, different elements can be presented at different frame rates (no, really). This is an incredible new toy for filmmakers to play with, and approaching it with an "all or nothing" attitude is a gross misuse of how flexible this tool can be.

Getting back to the film, the 48 fps presentation is really just a symptom of a greater cause. It's been Peter Jackson's greatest strength, as well as his greatest flaw, since The Fellowship of the Ring at least. I refer to Jackson's complete and total refusal (or perhaps inability) to think small. This is a tremendously ambitious man who creates massive worlds to explore through film. And he's going to show his audience every last microscopic detail of his vision, no matter how many budgetary dollars, minutes of screen time, technological innovations, or special edition DVDs it takes.

It's this obsession with excess that unfortunately drags down the movie, because it means that this film was never meant to stand on its own. It was never even meant to stand as the beginning of a trilogy. No, this movie was designed to be the beginning of two trilogies. The film treats us to a huge amount of revelations, exposition, dialogue, and characters; all of which are vital to the saga as a whole, but have no bearing on the main story of Bilbo Baggins and the company of dwarves. Needless to say, this film ends with the distinct feeling that nothing has really been accomplished yet. If nothing else, we can be thankful that Smaug has been saved for the next installment.

The overstuffed approach damages all aspects of the film in various ways, but it's especially bad for the dwarves. Making all twelve of them identifiable would have been a Herculean task even with a good amount of screen time, but it's borderline impossible when their screen time has been so badly reduced by all the other stuff going on. It's a mercy that they all look different, or they would quickly have melded into a huge blob of comic relief.

The one exception is Thorin Oakenshield, but I'll get to him later.

The point is that this film was never going to be perfect. Not only was it destined to carry the burden of setting up events, characters, and thematic ideas for the next five goddamned movies, but it was also hindered by the source material. There are so many times in this film when Gandalf and/or his giant eagles will come to save the day like a big, bright deus ex machina, but that was how things went down in the book. I don't want to say this movie was destined to fail, but it was absolutely destined to be flawed.

Yet there were so many flaws in this film that might easily have been avoided. The scene at present-day Bag End is one example. Did we really need to see what happened in the five minutes before Gandalf arrived for Bilbo's birthday? Was the "No Admittance" sign so iconic and memorable that we needed to know how it got there? Nice as it was to see Elijah Wood back in pointy ears (and looking like not a day has passed, I might add), Frodo's appearance contributed absolutely nothing to the plot.

Speaking of which, let's talk about Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett. It was great to see these actors back in character again, but their parts in this film could have and should have been shortened. What's worse, it looks like these actors are just sleepwalking through their roles at this point (though maybe that's just the airy nature of Galadriel, it's hard to tell).

Then we have Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) the leader of our expedition to the Lonely Mountain. He's presented as a brooding hero, proud and abrasive with a chip on his shoulder and a tragic backstory. You might call it archetypal. I would call it BORING. Though Armitrage does bring enough charisma to make for a convincing leader, this character is so cookie-cutter that it was honestly quite pathetic. There was nothing interesting, unusual, or unpredictable about this character or his arc as presented in this film. Still, at least Thorin got a development arc in this film, which puts him far above his bit-part brethren.

Finally, there's the "Misty Mountains" number in Bag End. You've seen it in the trailer, I'm sure. For the life of me, I can't figure out why that number was in this movie, bringing the first act to a full stop for as long as it did. Sure, it's a wonderful song and a prominent part of the score for this new trilogy, but it would have been far easier and less obstructive to play the theme over the end credits instead. In fact, the song is played over the end credits anyway, so what the hell?

Fortunately, there are a number of positive things about this film. For all the grief I've given the film about its treatment of the dwarves, they still made for some very effective comic relief. Their dinner scene at Bag End may have been slightly overlong, but it was still very funny. Some orcs and trolls also contribute to the film's comic relief, nicely straddling that line between danger and humor.

As for Bilbo himself, I never had any doubt that Martin Freeman was the man for the job. After all, Freeman has carved out a wonderful niche for himself as the go-to actor for British everyman roles (see: Watson in "Sherlock," Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Tim Canterbury in the original "The Office," etc.). He's developed a skill set that seems tailor-made for Bilbo, who was designed to be an unassuming everyman hobbit on the path to discovering how strong he really is. In his demeanor and in his sense of humor, Freeman is simply the perfect Bilbo.

Aside from all of that, everything that was great in the original trilogy is still great in this movie. The sets, special effects, costumes, and makeup are all sterling. The sound design is top-notch. A ton of musical themes from the previous trilogy's score show up here. Ian McKellen is still incredible to watch as Gandalf.

Special mention must be made regarding Andy Serkis and Gollum. It goes without saying that Serkis' return to his signature role is absolutely astounding. Even better, Serkis was promoted to "second unit director" for all three movies in this prequel trilogy. I sincerely hope this is the beginning of a long and prosperous career as a film director, because I salivate at the thought of what such a gifted and technologically groundbreaking actor could do behind a camera.

As for Gollum, it should be noted that the mad geniuses at WETA went and gave Gollum a few slight upgrades for this trilogy. Specifically, they gave Gollum more facial muscles, which allows for a more detailed and accurate replication of Serkis' performance. And brother, it pays off during the "Riddles in the Dark" scene. That whole sequence is a masterpiece in itself, beautifully edited with exquisite performances from Freeman and Serkis.

All told, I think it's far too early to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Yes, the film does suffer from bad pacing and lack of focus when judged on its own merit, but the film was never intended to stand on its own. To judge this movie fairly, we'll have to wait and see how it fits into the greater trilogy. At the very least, we should probably wait until the extended edition comes out.

For the time being, I only know that this is a solid foundation for a new trilogy. I do take issue with the dwarves and their presentation, but nothing that couldn't potentially be fixed with more screen time down the road. There's also the matter of the wonky HFR, but that's only a matter of time and research. All of that aside, the cast gained a very capable new anchor with Martin Freeman, and everything that was great about the previous movies is still great here. For now, that's enough of a victory where I'm concerned.

I don't know how this prequel trilogy will pan out when all is said and done. I only know that right now, at this very moment, it feels damned good to finally be back in Middle Earth.

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