Three the Hard Way: A Hobbit Review

The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

There is no qualifier that will convince you of my love for any and all tales from Middle Earth. I could tell you that I was the only kid in my high school English class that loved The Hobbit and was ridiculed for it. I could tell you that I used to diagram the Battle of Hornburg (aka Helm’s Deep). I could even tell you that I used to design my own characters that had history with Legolas and Aragorn. I could even go on forever about how I looked forward to the release of the cinematic LOTR Trilogy as much as that of the initial Raimi Spiderman movie. For me, that says a lot.

All of that is moot, as the Lord of the Rings Trilogy introduced a whole new generation of fans to the saga of Middle Earth and created a whole new legion of superfans that dwarf my love for the franchise. So when it was announced that the Hobbit was finally going into production, I know that millions of fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. We’d finally be able to return to Middle Earth and get a glimpse of some of the events that set the trilogy in motion.

At first it was supposed to be a duology of films and was then decided that it would be expanded to a trilogy of its own.  I’m not here to argue the wisdom of such a decision or of the fact that Guillermo Del Toro did not end up directing the films. I’m here to speak on the fact that I was insane enough to see the Hobbit three times. That’s right, I spent nearly nine hours of my life watching the same movie. But I know that those of you in the know have an idea of why I did this.

The big debate about the film was regarding the decision to film in 48 frames per second. It’s a first for a major motion picture and a gamble towards ‘progress’ in filmmaking. I was interested to experience this new format and thought it best to put it in context by seeing the same film in other, more conventional formats. So, with that said, I initially saw the film in standard 24 fps with 616 Project Senior Writer Michael Simon and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The First Time

To say that the film looks great is an understatement. Say what you will about Peter Jackson as storyteller, but with DP Andrew Lesnie and Second Unit Director/Actor Andy Serkis, we are given a film as beautiful as anything you’ll ever see on the screen. From the warm, golden tones of Rivendell to the oppressive grayness of Dol Guldur, every scene has a distinct visual identity. The action scenes were dynamic and engaging; particularly the escape from the Goblin Caves and the Battle for Moria. In both scenes, the Goblins and Orcs that make up the opposition to our heroes are visually terrifying. The Orcs are savage, subhuman marauders that you would not want to meet in a dark mountain pass. The goblins are tiny terrors that swarm en masse and remind me of everything I imagineed the bogeyman (El Cuco) to be when I was a kid. Seeing the Dwarves making a defensive retreat in one scene and waging an all-out assault in the other gives balance to what I saw as the two major battle sequences of the film. One was dynamic and full of motion. The other was a slow, gritty battle full of powerful and desperate movement. To be clear, the visual element of the film does not disappoint….with one exception.

Azog the Defiler definitely cuts an imposing figure and gives the gruffly noble Thorin Oakenshield a credible nemesis but the CGI used to bring the character to life is a bit subpar. While his movements should not seem natural, as he is a non-human mythical being, they seem almost too rubbery. What should seem like powerful blows from a towering behemoth come off as rubber band-like strikes. Furthermore, the actual CG imagery of the character always seems blurry and reminiscent of a cut scene for a Resident Evil game circa 2007. This is the one visual aspect of the film that was a letdown, but I’ll come back to this when I go into 3D and 48fps. I promise.

On the other hand, the story is an aspect of the film that a Tolkien-ite such as myself would easily notice some issues with. This film is NOT exactly the Hobbit that we grew up reading, as it contains a great deal of material imported from other works by Tolkien. At one point, Mike turned to me and said ‘There’s stuff from the Appendices in this…’ and boy was he right. I don’t want to go into the nitty-gritty of it all, but little things like the inclusion of Azog are hewn from other material. As I remember it, it was Azog’s son Bolg that was running around in the Hobbit and was not given the same dramatic heft as his defiling father. And I get why some of this stuff was moved around and added. The decision to expand this one, kids book to an entire trilogy obviously necessitated some material to pad it out. It’s a shrewd bit of commerce-meets-art that pays off so far. Fans of Tolkien’s expanded universe get to see some fun stuff that they love and non-readers get a fleshed out story.

Characters like Gandalf and Gollum amazed me because at the very site of them, I smiled with delight. I just KNEW that I was in for a treat when they were on screen. Sir Ian McKellen reprises his role as the Gray Wizard of Middle Earth with a mixture of warmth and powerful guidance. It’s McKellan’s ability to convey both authority and caring that makes him a welcome screen presence. His portrayal of Gandalf the Gray always inspires awe and confidence, just as he should, considering his role within the group on the quest to Erebor. With limited screen time, Andy Serkis and the digital wizards at WETA Digital remind us why they creepy little character struck such a cord. In a compelling (and lengthy) scene with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, Gollum embodies every color in the spectrum of emotion. He goes from one personality to the other, quickly shifting from playful pal to conniving creep to angry assailant.

Of the other characters of this film, Martin Freeman makes Bilbo out to be a homebody with the heart of a hero. Throughout the film, Freeman imbues Bilbo with (if this makes any sense) a nervous assertiveness. He always seems like he’s given up or is going to take the easy way out but steels himself, puts on his game face and surprises himself with what he is capable of. Freeman sells the awkward heroism with his boyish smile, nervous movement and a squint that goes from ‘nervous to badass’ in two seconds.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (24FPS) get’s a solid B+. It’s a solid entry into this new trilogy and has only a few missteps in what is an otherwise extremely enjoyable cinematic experience. So, now that you know all about the main aspects of the film, the rest obviously comes down to the visuals.

The Second  & Third Time

On a quiet night, during the middle of the week, I carved out enough time in my schedule to see the Hobbit in 3D 48FPS. On New Years Eve, I ventured out to see it in IMAX 3D. Now, I had read all about the technical aspects of shooting the film as they did. I knew that they were sparing no expense in utilizing only THE BEST to shoot and edit this film but the final product remained to be seen. For you process nerds, the specs are as follows. If I’m missing anything, feel free to chime in.

Camera/Lenses:  Red Epic, Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo

Film Negative Format : Redcode RAW 

Cinematographic Process:  Digital Intermediate (2K) (Master Format)

Redcode RAW (5K) (dual-strip 3-D) (Source Format)

 Printed Film Format:  35 mm (anamorphic) (Kodak Vision 2383)

70 mm (horizontal) (IMAX DMR blow-up)

Aspect Ratio:  2.35 : 1

I’ll go on record as saying that I am not a big fan of the current 3D trend. Most films that I have seen in 3D have left me underwhelmed, mainly due to the crappy post-production conversion process that studios rushed the final product through to cash in. Knowing how beautiful the first trilogy looked, it was my hope that it would look and feel more like Avatar and Prometheus and less like Captain America and Thor. Here, the 3D is top notch and captures everything that should inspire a sense of awe and magnifies it. The opening scene at the Kingdom Under the Mountain of Erebor is MAGNIFICENT. From the Arkenstone poking out from a rock face to the smoke & flame of Smaug, everything pops.

With that said, the main attraction of the increased frame rate left me straddling the line in terms of my general impression. Everything seemed so smooth that it felt surreal. The colors and movement were unnatural in a very confusing way. Considering that this takes place in a magical universe, a sense of the unnatural is welcome, but not for our main protagonists. For all off the high end production design, it ended up looking cheaply made and something out of a 1980’s kids show. This probably stems from the fact that the film was shot using a 270° shutter angle. From speaking to film tech buffs, this was a sort of compromise that the filmmakers made in order to have the film look decent projected both 24 & 48 frames per second.  Seeing it in this new format was exciting because it means that filmmakers still have a lot to experiment with. Though this isn’t my ideal way to see the Hobbit, I think it’s a format that could work for a new Tron movie or even something like an adaptation of The Flash. Can you imagine a refined usage of 48fps incorporating cutting edge CGI for a Flash film? Count me in for THAT.

Finally, seeing the Hobbit in IMAX 3D was worth it just for the sense of scale. Furthermore, the CG looked ten times better in 3D than in standard 2D. The pixelation and muddled quality of a character like Azog was smoothed over and leapt off the screen. To see Orcs riding their Wargs or the aforementioned Battle for Moria in IMAX 3D really gave a sense of the larger than life nature of this world. Aside from seeing Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol , this has been the best IMAX experience I have had in a LONG time. I will say that that your mileage may vary depending on the quality of your local IMAX screen and overall projection quality of your local theatre. I’ve heard from a lot of people regarding IMAX theatres where the center of the screen is too bright, with excessive darkening on the periphery of the image. I didn’t have these issues, so hopefully you won’t either.

So there you have it; my thoughts on the Hobbit. Regardless of your format preference, it’s a fun film worth seeing. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth seeing on the big screen.

Here’s to the wait for The Desolation of Smaug. It’s going to be a long one.

Categories: Film, Review, Technology

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