‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott
Runtime: 2 hours, 49 minutes
Bottom line: Mostly magnificent
With the arrival of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” another epic adventure begins.
The anticipation for this movie is huge, just as it was for each entry in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. However, “An Unexpected Journey” also comes with some controversy.
The quality of the film itself is easy to assess. It is every bit as good as any of the “Rings” movies. Its appeal is slightly more juvenile than the trilogy, but that is true of the novel.
J.R.R. Tolkien devotees should love it. It doesn’t follow the structure of the book exactly, but it draws entirely from Tolkien sources.
The film begins with a prologue that recounts most of “The Quest of Erebor,” the short story incorporated into some Tolkien editions.
We then jump to The Shire sometime shortly before the events of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” where an elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) is writing a memoir of his youthful adventures for Frodo (Elijah Wood).
We then flashback to when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) was a young man, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) suddenly shows up and debates the meaning of “Good morning,” and dwarves begin letting themselves into Bilbo’s home.
From then on, the film is incredibly faithful to the book and is made with the same care and love Jackson brought to the “Rings” trilogy.
Which brings us to one of the film’s controversies, the decision to adapt the novel into three movies.
It was originally supposed to be two parts, and when MGM announced it would instead be another trilogy, the move was widely criticized as a callous attempt to milk the franchise.
Even if Jackson and MGM had made the decision for financial reasons, they can hardly be vilified for it. This is, after all, the trend throughout the industry.
But as Jackson has reminded us in recent interviews, “The Hobbit” is an extraordinarily dense adventure tale.
Tolkien summarizes several battles and story events that consume more onscreen minutes than pages. Since Jackson also used “The Quest for Erebor” and other Tolkien sources, there is a tremendous lot of content to adapt.
The resulting movie doesn’t feel 169 minutes long. It certainly doesn’t drag as badly as “The Return of the King” with its endless epilogues.
The film’s other controversy is Jackson’s decision to shoot it on film at a high frame rate.
Digital photography and projection are replacing film, and visual quality is declining because of it. The industry is shifting to digital to save money, not because it produces higher quality images.
The 3-D format degrades visual quality even further. We sacrifice brightness and clarity for the illusion of three dimensions.
Jackson and others believe that shooting on film at 48 frames per second — twice the standard frame rate — produces an image more crisp than digital, which also retains the superior color and light of film.
They believe it will not only save film but bring viewers back to theaters by giving them an experience that is impossible to reproduce on a television.
Viewers are going to be extremely divided on high frame rate (HFR) aesthetics.
At times, it is stunning. The Gollum sequence is jaw-dropping.
Enhanced by the HFR, the animation and Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance endow the character with such vitality and detail that I can’t believe that’s not a real, living creature on screen.
The HFR 3-D also looks remarkably better than digital 3-D. It regains all of the brightness and clarity lost in digital 3-D.
Ironically, though, the HFR might succeed too much.
It produces such high resolution and contrast that it reveals every minute imperfection. Digital effects can be merged seamlessly with live action in digital or at the standard film frame rate, but this format lays bare the whole process and breaks the illusion of Tolkien’s world.
The writing, acting and storytelling are engrossing for the entire running time, while visually the movie bounces between groundbreaking and cringe-worthy.
I recommend “The Hobbit” in 2-D and at the standard frame rate to everyone. Those who shell out their precious for the HFR 3-D premium do so at their own risk.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.