Title: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director/Stars: Ian McKellen (Actor), Peter Jackson (Director)
Watched: December 15, 2012
Summary: More is more!
On a technical note: I saw The Hobbit at one of LA’s leading theaters in a digital 3D projection (with active glasses) using the new High Frame Rate (HFR) 48 fps recording and with Dolby Atmos sound. This was all pretty damn impressive, and let’s take them apart. I didn’t see it in IMAX, but I find that projecting a normal 35mm image on the IMAX screen results in annoying distortion. I bought my reserved seats 6 weeks in advance and so we were perfectly positioned in the middle of the stadium theatre.
I’m not normally a huge fan of 3D, as it drops the brightness and clarity too much. Not so here. The projection was plenty bright and the image so sharp you could almost count the pores. So sharp that it approached a kind of hyper reality. There was more depth than usual to the 3D, and presumably it was all shot with 3D cameras. Basically it looked great.
The HFR gave everything a flicker-free quality like my 240hz HDTV. As with the TV, this takes some getting used to and initially, while it looks smoother, actually appears slightly fake or cheesy. I’ve been “training” with my TV for 6 months and I’m still only about 50% over a lifetime of conditioning.
According to the Dolby engineer who spoke in front of our performance, Dolby Atmos has 60 speakers! Not that I counted, but it sure sounded good. Even in a loud film like there wasn’t a problem understanding the dialogue and goblin hoots came from everywhich direction.
It was certainly the best looking and sounding film I’ve seen to date, even if the overall effect of the clarity, 3D, and HFR lended a hyperreal quality.
Now, how about the film!
The Hobbit is unusual in so many ways. It’s one of the grand classics of fantasy. Many of us read it at an early age as it’s more approachable than LOTR for elementary schoolers. It’s faster paced and more compact. Then we have this unprecedented production. Not only does Peter Jackson and team truly love the material, not only is no expense spared, but he was even allowed to convert a 95,000 word novel into three very long films, totaling 8-9 hours of screen time! This is totally unprecedented. I myself, in starting to adapt my 75k novel Untimed for the screen, have concluded that I’ll have to cut at least 40%.
Peter Jackson didn’t cut The Hobbit. He added to it.
Borrowing from LOTR, The Silmarillion, and who knows what else, the first third of The Hobbit pads out background on the dwarves, the arrival of Smaug at Lonely Mountain, the orc/dwarf wars, and the rising evil in Middle Earth. This defies every precept of modern screenplay construction.
And it works.
Current practice insists that everything not crucial to the central forward narrative be dropped or left off screen. Backstory, many argue, has no place in a film (or even, possibly, a novel). But so beloved is the world of Middle Earth that this sin of excess can be forgiven, even, perhaps, praised.
The Hobbit is a much smaller story than LOTR. Sure it crosses great distance and includes grand adventure, but the trilogy chronicles the near destruction of the world. But since Hollywood, and even Peter Jackson, like to top their previous works, there is considerable effort made to expand the scope and feel to fully epic scale. A new major villain, the white orc, is added and tied into Thorin’s history and used to drive things forward. The scope of encounters is also significantly beefed up from the source material. This mostly works, although it left me with a slight sense that they were trying too hard.
Like the novel, the story takes its time. We revel for a good half an hour in the destruction of Bilbo’s pantry by the dwarves. Still, this is actually pretty funny, and I spent the time oogling the crispness of the onscreen imagery (see technical notes above). The dwarves have an amusing look about them, with their crazy braided hair styles. This isn’t a Hollywood friendly cast of characters. We have 13 heavily bearded men. The production does its best to differentiate them with age, hair color, style, hats, and the like, but few in the audience will be able to connect names with faces. This contrasts with the varied composition and ease of identification of the LOTR fellowship.
It’s also worth noting the near total absence of women in the film. As far as I remember, Galadriel is the only female cast member to speak a word (it’s possible that a random hobbit villager might have). And even the elven sorceress is added material not found in the books. This is a story about a band of brothers. Emphasis on the brothers. Like much of Tolkien’s work, there is an influence from his service during WWI. War isn’t (or at least wasn’t) a women’s gig.
Considerable effort is made to integrate the story more with LOTR. Added scenes reference the building evil. Along with Galadriel, Elrond, Frodo, and Saruman make appearances. Christopher Lee is creepy as usual as the ancient wizard. I did observe (like in Hugo), that he doesn’t walk on screen. He is 90 years old after all!
But if the beginning takes its time, the second half of the film is pretty intense. The goblin sequence alone is worth the price of admission. Jackson brilliantly intercuts the dwarves’ grand escape and battle with Bilbo’s first encounter with Gollum. The battle itself is both comic and breathless. I particularly liked the Goblin King, played by drag queen Dame Edna (Barry Humphries)! The twisting chase sequence is stylistically related to my favorite sequence in LOTR, the part in Moria between the dropping of the armor in the well and the fall of Gandalf. It takes the visuals to a whole new level and even borrows heavily from Jackson’s knack for creative mayhem, first employed in Dead Alive. Bilbo with Gollum is great too. As usual, Andy Serkis steals the show with Gollum/Smeagol’s split personality.
The effects are seamless, and present in every frame. How much is model, how much costume, how much latex, how much CG? I have no idea. Somehow it feels a little less fully green screened than some recent films. Perhaps because New Zealand, with its vast and breathtaking landscapes also stars in the film.
Overall, The Hobbit isn’t flawless, but it is totally captivating and left me burning for more.
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My novels: The Darkening Dream and Untimed