December 14, 2012

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”


THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY – Watch It At Home – A Long, Slow Trek Through Middle-Earth

As a devotee of the Tolkien canon, Peter Jackson is obviously responsive to sage words of wisdom and well-worn adages.  Here’s one he should have considered:  Quit While You’re Ahead.  But first, let’s talk about HFR.

The acronym, for anyone who doesn’t know, stands for High Frame Rate, and it means that THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was shot and is being projected to Jackson’s specifications (in about 10% of its US theaters) at 48 frames per second, double the rate that’s been standard in the film industry for nearly a century.  The idea is that while 24 fps was adopted for a combination of technical, aesthetic and financial reasons, 48 fps is actually closer to the way the human eye perceives the world, and as a result, films presented in that format will feel more like observed reality.  (James Cameron has announced that he’ll be doing his Avatar sequels in 60 fps, pushing the envelope even more.)

3D is remarkable in 48 fps.  All the negatives associated with that technology–eyestrain, a dull headachy feeling, the dim image on screen–vanish, and the multi-dimensionality of every shot seems effortless.  While standard 3D usually pops only when something dramatic comes flying into or out of a shot, at 48 fps each individual and object on screen exists in a much more natural spatial relationship with everything else that surrounds it.

For now, however, that may not compensate for the substantial drawbacks that also accompany 48 fps.  The fallacy of the idea that a movie shown in HFR will look more “real” than those in the conventional format is that movies aren’t real at all, especially in a genre like The Hobbit‘s.  They’re shot with artificial light, on constructed sets, with props that aren’t what they pretend to be, and feature performers who wear heavy make-up because of those lights, as well as hair-pieces and prosthetic devices.  All of those things are glaringly noticeable in HFR, as are the attempts to meld people with CG-enhanced backgrounds.  There’s also, at times (particularly in brightly lit sequences) a “video” feel to the images that looks less like the way we see life around us than it does like a local news telecast or talk show.  All of this will no doubt improve  as more films are made with HFR, in the same way that the initial attempts to telecast live HD programming had similar issues until the technicians learned how to allow for the camera’s more intense scrutiny.  There will also be a learning curve for directors and cinematographers to craft HFR images that include the kind of visual subtlety and beauty we expect from great films, rather than merely recording what’s taking place in front of the lens.  For now, though, in The Hobbit, it’s all quite experimental and distracting.

As for the film itself, questions arose as soon as it was announced that a roughly 300-page book would be the basis of what was originally supposed to be a pair (and ultimately became a trilogy) of lengthy films, Hobbit 1 being 170 minutes long.  (By way of comparison, the published Lord of the Rings trilogy runs about 1000 pages.)  The project went through a protracted pre-production period as the rights were worked out, first with the Tolkien estate and then among the studios that shared those rights (Warner Brothers, through its New Line subsidiary, and MGM, whose bankruptcy complicated everything even more), and originally hired director Guillermo del Toro, who eventually left, reportedly due to the many delays, to be replaced by Jackson. There were various conspiracy theories spun around this, and when the planned duo of films became a trilogy, much bemoaning of everyone’s greed, but it seems unlikely that Jackson, who was already going to be a producer of del Toro’s version, and who’s richer than God, acted for mercenary reasons.  He seems to have an honest fanboy’s obsessive desire to see every possible fragment of Middle-Earth committed to film, and the clout to make it happen.

But there simply isn’t enough essential material in the novel to justify what Jackson has created, and although Jackson leaps right back into the world of Middle-Earth without missing a step (his co-writers, as usual, include Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, as well as del Toro, who spent time on the script before exiting), his apparent determination to turn a relatively slight novel into another monumental epic proves its undoing.  Hobbit 1 is so padded with extraneous flashbacks and lengthy dialogue scenes that you might think Jackson was getting paid per minute of released film.

More than that, The Hobbit has never had the substance or the stakes of the trilogy.  Originally written before Lord of the Rings (although Tolkien revised it afterward), it serves as a prologue to the grander tale, taking place 60 years earlier and telling of Bilbo Baggins (played here by Martin Freeman, aside from a brief cameo by Rings Bilbo Ian Holm, seen with erstwhile Frodo Elijah Wood) and his adventures on a quest with 13 dwarfs and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help the dwarfs reclaim their land from a dragon and the usual evil orcs.  Which is certainly a worthy goal, but not quite in a league with saving the world from ultimate evil.  The one critical event that occurs in The Hobbit is Bilbo taking possession of the One True Ring from Gollum (again brilliantly played by Andy Serkis, CG’d more impressively than ever thanks to advances in technology), setting the stage for the trilogy.  That scene is by far the high point of this first Hobbit installment, just as it’s the highlight of the novel, and it comes 2 hours into the movie.  The first hour is about Bilbo’s recruitment by Gandalf to join the quest, and it’s dominated by an indecently long dinner at which the dwarfs are introduced; the only one to make any impression is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and he comes across as warmed-over Aragon–the rest are “the old one,” “the red-haired one,” and not much more, lucky not to be dismissed altogether as Sneezy, Grumpy, etc.  The second hour is a lot of plodding in the general direction of the dwarfs’ ancestral mountain, with cameos by Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) and Christopher Lee (Saruman), their faces digitally scrubbed, as are Holm’s and Wood’s, to reflect the earlier time-frame. Even the latter part of the third hour, although it features the movie’s big set-piece battle sequence, is just more of the Lord of the Rings routine.

The Hobbit films are going to make hundreds of millions–probably billions–of dollars (they’ll also probably cost around a billion when marketing costs are included), and Peter Jackson couldn’t stop them from being made.  All he could do was refuse to participate, and that would have been even worse for the legacy of his franchise, as Brett Ratner or some other hack would probably have been brought in after del Toro left.  As it is, Jackson has, with his technical team (cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah, editor Jabez Olssen, composer Howard Shore, all returned from Rings duty) made a film that fits stylistically with the existing trilogy and doesn’t embarrass anyone concerned–there’s just too damn much of it.  Unless you want to experience HFR in action, it’s a movie best experienced with Pause and Fast-Forward buttons, a journey that’s respectable, accomplished but sadly more than a little tiresome.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."