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Entries in Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012] (1)

Friday
Dec212012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

High (Frame Rate) Anxiety

In a way, it's unfortunate that Peter Jackson chose The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as the platform from which to launch his medium-changing, high-frame-rate 3D technology. Had he done so on King Kong, The Lovely Bones, or some other movie that nobody cares about, perhaps the proper focus would have been placed on the unbelievable visual enhancements he and his team of cinematic alchemists conjured up--instead of on the diminished fan excitement for history's second-most anticipated prequel.

If you'd told me eleven years ago that The Hobbit would sit cozily near the top of my 2012 "Best Of" list, I'd have probably choked to death on vomit and laughter. I'm a recent Jackson convert, you see, having spent far too much time neither understanding nor appreciating his Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I'm fully on board the Middle-earth train now, and am happy to say that the director's most recent film is not only the best of the bunch, but also the kind of unique, reason-to-go-to-the-movies experience cinephiles have been craving.

We got a taste of Bilbo Baggins' (Ian Holm) story in The Fellowship of the RingMartin Freeman plays the character here, for the most part, in an extended flashback that unfolds as a book written for his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). The "unexpected journey" of the title refers to a great quest Bilbo reluctantly joined many years ago at the behest of kooky old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen)--who'd offered the timid hobbit's (nonexistent) skills as a thief to thirteen dwarves seeking to take back their mountain kingdom from a fierce dragon. 

While the posse sing, laugh, and gorge themselves on the contents of Bilbo's pantry, their leader, Thorin Oakenhshield (Richard Armitage), broods and plots to restore honor to his family name: once upon a time, his grandfather grew so obsessed with hoarding gold (i.e. dragon catnip) that he attracted the attention of Smaug, the biggest, nastiest, dwarf-chompin'-est winged beast this side of Pelennor Fields. 

Unlike The Lord of the Rings--which, though thrilling, often creaked under the weight of its heavy themes and abundance of overly serious characters--The Hobbit is shaping up to be a crackling adventure series. Gone are the glum Shakespearian monologues and endless shots of desperate warriors trudging to and from battle. An Unexpected Journey's nearly three-hour run-time is packed with mini-escapades, as Bilbo and the boys encounter trolls, goblins, proto-orcs, and, of course, Gollum (Andy Serkis)--the ex-hobbit-turned-One-Ring-obsessive whose blind greed inadvertently sets the apocalypse in motion.

Going in, I knew that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro (who stepped down from the director's chair early in the the project) had blown up J.R.R. Tolkien's three-hundred-twenty-page novel into three long movies. This scared me a bit, especially after reports of bloat coming out of early screenings. I'm puzzled, frankly, by all the concern. It's true that much of An Unexpected Journey is set-up for two sequels and the LOTR trilogy, but the filmmakers perfectly balance action, humor, and dramatic tension.

Sure, you could probably clock the dwarves' introductions, their big meal, and Bilbo's pre-quest waffling at twenty-plus minutes, but it's a great twenty-plus minutes--full of character building, stakes-raising, and even leisurely merriment. Remember, sometimes it's okay (even crucial to the plot) that a movie breathe and appear to go nowhere for awhile. In this way, An Unexpected Journey--more so than the previous entries--feels like a well-paced novel; had complaints about pacing and fluff been allowed to rule the day, it's doubtful Tolkien or Stephen King would have ever had careers.

Jackson and company's greatest triumph--and subtlest nuance--is the way they contrast certain characters' moods and motivations from what the audience knows of them from the previous (future?) films. Gandalf is practically a senile pothead here, who has to be reminded at times that he's a Serious Wizard. The Elf King, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), is an accommodating, almost jovial host to the dwarves--a total one-eighty from the wet blanket he played throughout LOTR.

And Bilbo, this film's Frodo--the innocent who must face unbearable darkness to save Middle-earth (or a portion of it, in this case)--is a sheltered adult, rather than a sheltered child. That made a huge difference to me, in terms of relatability. He's content with the quiet life he's built for himself, but greater forces compel him to revisit the excitement and glory of youthful exploration. Rather than watching someone make stupid mistakes or cave at the first sign of temptation, it was refreshing to see a protagonist who already had a sense of himself and (to an extent) the world, who is forced to learn new skills in order to cope; that is to say, Bilbo's journey adds more colors to a well-used palette, instead of breaking in a new one.

Fine, fine. The story and characters are all terrific. How does the movie look? And what's with all this "frame-rate" business?

Most films you see in a theatre or on blu-ray are displayed at 24 frames per second (fps). That's 24 single images, played in sequence, which produce the illusion of a single second's worth of animated imagery. Jackson filmed The Hobbit at 48fps. This means the audience takes in twice the amount of visual information as a regular movie--allowing greater perception of detail, as well as a "sped-up" motion effect.

Why on Middle-earth would you want to see such a movie? The answer is simple: the result, which takes a few minutes of getting used to, is simply breath-taking. I didn't see An Unexpected Journey in IMAX, opting instead for Cinemark's XD experience (it's that theatre chain's version of LIE-MAX). The screen wasn't so big that I couldn't focus on anything, but it was significantly larger than a typical movie screen--allowing just the right amount of immersion.

I also saw this in 3D, a technology that has come so far in the last few years as to be unrecognizable from the red/blue-tinted gimmickry of its reputation. Yes, I've lost countless dollars to 3D rip-off experiences (from post-conversions to films whose lack of story dimension didn't warrant an extra visual dimension), but movies like Avatar, Dredd, and An Unexpected Journey prove that some filmmakers take their medium-enhancements very seriously.

The confluence of a really big screen, 3D, and higher frame rate create a truly unique experience. The details of Jackson and WETA's effects-heavy world are unbelievably rich, and the action scenes gave me, at times, the heady, weightless sensation of tipping over the peak of a roller coaster. One particular fly-through during a climactic mountain battle left me reeling with delight, and I realized that I hadn't felt so young and wide open to a movie since seeing the original Star Wars as a child.

As I said, the effect is jarring at first, and my brain almost missed out on processing the film's prologue because it took awhile to adjust decades of visual preconceptions. I literally couldn't believe what I was seeing. I've read complaints that The Hobbit suffers from the same "soap opera" effect that occurs when HD televisions have their frame-rates jacked too high. I can understand that point, but it was my experience that the quick motion and hyper-realism stopped being distracting after the first fifteen minutes or so. In fact, towards the end of the movie, I was pulled out of the story by the realization that the movement on-screen seemed so natural. I wondered if I'd simply gotten used to the unique motion, or if Jackson had fiddled with something in the process to bring things back to "normal".

Whatever the case, the 48fps decision boils down to personal choice. I can't imagine not seeing this movie in the way Jackson intended. But some of you may have motion-sickness, eye-strain issues, or plain old impatience that will steer you into auditoriums offering the traditional 24 fps presentation. If you're feeling adventurous, I highly recommend the optimum experience. An Unexpected Journey is worth multiple viewings anyway, so why not change it up a bit?

As a film and as a moviegoing experience, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is as creatively, intellectually, and technologically stimulating an experience as you're likely to find in theatres--until next year, when it sequel comes out. By then, I'll bet Jackson and his team will have worked out some of the kinks that always accompany these kinds of advancements (remember The Lawnmower Man's "cutting-edge special effects"?). Meanwhile, I must re-adjust to boring old 24fps features--no matter how tempted I am to grab the nearest wizard and sail off to an enchanted land made for those of us who've been too fundamentally shaken to ever look back.