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'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey': What Worked & What Didn't

by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2012 12:15 PM
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What Didn’t Work

48 FPS
To sum it up, here’s the problem with 48 fps: in providing a super high-definition picture with more detail than you ever thought possible, it conversely makes any elements that are fantastical and imaginative, more artificial and ordinary as a result. The use of 48 fps had the curiously opposite effect to being immersive, by jarring viewers out of the experience. The first already dreadfully slow hour of the movie was further hampered by a visual effect that turned the entire proceedings at Bag End into dress-up on a drastically overlit episode of “Coronation Street.” To get a sense of how different the feel is, just throw any of the LOTR DVDs on your TV -- you immediately feel like you’re in an entirely different, beautifully conjured world. In ‘The Hobbit,’ the faster frame rate only highlights the feeling that you are watching actors in costume, on a film set, and at times, the hyper-details make the green screen digital effects behind the actors stand out, instead of disappearing into the background. That said, 48 fps does the make the action sequences look gorgeous, particularly the extended goblin battle, with the frame rate lending itself well to the expressive, carefully planned setpiece. It’s been said that directors can switch between 24 and 48 fps in the same movie, so our advice for PJ? For the next two films, stick with the standard rate but flip to new format when it’s time for special effects.

Jackson's been a strong advocate for 3D, having been side-by-side with James Cameron on the WETA-aided "Avatar," and having produced "The Adventures of Tintin" for Steven Spielberg, as well as planning to direct that film's sequel. So it's a little puzzling that he doesn't really seem to take advantage of the format in the way that we hoped he would. After all, recent years have seen people like Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee design movies from the ground-up to use the dimensionalization of their movies to its fullest. We're not fans of 3D in general, but we'd certainly acknowledge that some of those guys are using it in a way that makes sense, but Jackson seems to be shooting in much the same way he always has, so the stereo effect never feels particularly justified, bar perhaps some of the impossible camera shots in the goblin caves.  If you're someone who believes that 3D immediately makes everything more immersive, you probably had a good time with it, but we mostly found the effect to be token, and reminiscent more of a quick post-convert than being shot in native 3D. And it's particularly egregious given that the HFR technology was forced on us principally because of its 3D benefits. We suspect that by the time the second part rolls around, we'll be going out of our way to see the film in good old 2D 24FPS.

The Film Lacks A Core Central Relationship To Care About
The idea of taking J.R.R. Tolkien’s comparatively thin, much more lighthearted “The Hobbit” and turning it into the three movies was always going to challenge, but ‘An Unexpected Journey’ reveals why this approach is problematic. Where the LOTR series had a great central relationship at its core, with Frodo and Sam bonded and tested by their quest, and further rounded out by an expansive world with fascinating side characters and subplots that enriched the story, ‘The Hobbit’ flounders in that department. As good as he is, Freeman is pretty much only given one note to play, that of the reluctant hobbit drawn into this adventure against his will, only to wind up nearly three hours later kind of half-heartedly agreeing to help the dwarves reclaim their land. It’s not exactly the most compelling arc to latch onto, and it isn’t helped by head dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) spending most of the movie griping that Bilbo isn’t fit to travel with them, and generally being kind of a grumpy, stubborn dick to the point where, when Bilbo is ready to bail, we’re totally on his side.

Those Troublesome Eagles
“It’s in the books!” Yeah, yeah, we get it, but sometimes to make things work cinematically, elements need to be changed (we won’t even into how ridiculous that fiery pinecones sequence was). But with the giant eagles once again coming to the rescue (we kind of been there, done that in ‘Return Of The King’) and whisking everyone away from the danger, all we could think when they dropped them a random cliff in the middle of nowhere was: couldn’t they have just taken them to Erebor? They're like the world's most dickish cab drivers. With the Lonely Mountain rising up in the far, far distance, we weren’t so much anticipating the next journey as already thinking about the fact we have two more movies, and six more hours before this story is wrapped up, and Peter Jackson finishes knitting all the strings together between the two trilogies.

The Pacing Is Off
Even with the 48 fps, which makes everything look like someone's sitting on the fast forward button on the DVD remote control, "The Hobbit" starts off slow. Like, agonizingly slow. After gobs of uninteresting exposition, we're treated to a seemingly endless series of scenes where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) invites a bunch of fucking dwarves over to Bilbo's house, where they wreck the place and engage in not one but two musical numbers, to the point where the first forty-five minutes or so resemble the Middle Earth version of "Les Miserables." Then they're off on an adventure, which seems to involve an awful lot of sitting around and talking about food, which isn't particularly adventurous and is even less cinematic. What makes the pacing of the movie even weirder is that once the movie is about halfway done, it doesn't slow down at all – there are giant mountainous men who throw boulders at each other, a protracted section of the movie set in some kind of underground goblin factory and a final showdown between some Orcs riding what appear to be werewolves from the "Twilight" movies. It's jarring and awkward and just because the first half is so boring doesn't mean the second half has to overcompensate with pacing that borders on the frenetic. Yes, there are some nice moments in the second half but by then we'd completely checked out emotionally. And might even have taken a little nap.

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  • celeste | January 16, 2013 6:33 AMReply

    Hmm, I basically disagree with many of the points made in this. The hobbit was book intended for 12 year olds and although it appeals to adults this is due to not only the action, but the subtle social commentary and the characterisation. These elements are underplayed in this film because basically it was decided, riding on the success of the Lord of the Rings saga that the fans would like more of the same. Hence the elements added to the story to ramp up the action. Comic elements in the book are poorly interpreted and underplayed, essentially this is Bildungsroman story where bourgeois middle class Bilbo is entrapped into having an adventure by Gandalf who perceives him as having more in his character than his life as a rural squire reflects. The opening scene with the dwarves is ten times funnier in the book because it is based on an English comedy of manners. Bilbo is incensed but can't show it because it violates his social code. Ultimately his adventure transformed him into someone altogether broader and the tragedy is that Bilbo is never quite as comfortable again in the shire, nor are the people quite as easy with him, he no longer fits in. Aspects of Tolkien war experiences come through here as in The return of the King. I don't get a feeling these will be films about character and they will be poorer for it although I enjoyed this first offering.

  • Montrepido | January 2, 2013 10:47 AMReply

    This guys reasoning was ignorant. First off, The Hobbit was written as a kids book, that's why its lighter than LOTR. Secondly just read the damn book and stop complaining.

  • Sir | December 25, 2012 12:00 AMReply

    THANK YOU for writing this review. I agreed with just about every point you mentioned here. This film is doing well in the box-office, yes, but that doesn't necessarily make it a well-made movie. Just to prove my point to any glazed-eye fans out there, look at the Twilight movies, Phantom Menace, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Indiana Jones Crystal Skull, etc etc etc.

  • LinenWeaver | December 19, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    The movie was an awesome experience!

  • Alan | December 19, 2012 4:25 AMReply

    "Like Paul Greengrass' "Watchmen" or Lynne Ramsay's "The Lovely Bones," the concept of Guillermo Del Toro's "The Hobbit" will end up as one of the great 'what ifs' in cinema history." Err, what? Ramsay was sent the opening, liked it, started working on it, and then was sent the later half ... and didn't like it, so much. She was kicked off the project, and wasn't all that depressed that she didn't get to film a book she had problems with. The tragedy!

  • Giovanni | December 17, 2012 4:57 PMReply

    "Remake of 'The Fellowship of the Ring"? Seriously?! The guy did not think that the Shire to Rivendell the path traced in two books, "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" is the same? Ah ... Critics thought just before utter their criticism.

    The dwarves are not well defined even in the books. Are THIRTEEN characters! Peter did a good job in differentiating them at least in appearance. Tolkien was never good at delving into characters, considering that Middle-earth is the main character.

    Since this is the first film and has a character introductory, much had to be created out of nothing - and another major reason for this was the Appendices of "The Return of the King" added.

    About the Eagles. They do not like to help. Never liked help unless to they benefit. That matter has not said about them ... search.

    Honestly? Critics of the film said something: contextualization. And as this story is divided into three and the other movies only come in the next two years, the way would be to check the writings, but not in Wikipedia were to take a look.

    A shame.

  • D'Artagnan | December 18, 2012 12:30 AM

    Do you mean that the film cannot stand on its own? That it is nothing without the next two? That you need to read the book to understand it. Talk about a pointless movie then.

    The Fellowship of the Ring was a complete film. It told the story of the fellowship and ended with its breaking, an important milestone in the story. Here, Jackson probably felt he ran out of time (yeah, that's kinda ironic) and so had his characters look to the horizon and deliver a motivational speech just to end the film.

    About the eagles, I totally felt they were benefiting from saving the dwarves (and dropping them at the top of a mountain while getting nothing in return). Not to mention how unsurprising their arrival was with Gandalf sending that butterfly 10 mins before.

    Btw, love it how you praise Jackson and criticize Tolkien.

  • Ragnar | December 17, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    Basically you should read this
    because some of your "what didn`t" points are just nonsense, because they were in the books and besides as a book The Hobbit and Fellowship are indeed very similar, hence the films are also similar.

  • LennyG | December 17, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    I'm not that much of a LOTR expert but The Hobbit is structurally written episodically! Why would the film be different? And the eagles...They are key figures throughout the books (in fact, they are given short shrift in LOTR). They represent a different take on good/evil - Nature vs. environmental destruction and they at times have to be convinced to help the West side (good guys) because the bad guys are worse.

  • Patrick | December 17, 2012 1:10 PMReply

    Did this writer even read the book?! Articles like this make me so mad at people!!!

  • D'Artagnan | December 18, 2012 12:34 AM

    Did you read Tintin (all 24 books), War Horse, John Carter of Mars, Life of Pi, Les Miserables and all books from which films are adapted before watching the films?

    Comments like this make me so mad at people!!!

  • Ugh | December 17, 2012 2:25 PM

    Stop using "it was in the book" as a defense for a badly structured film. It amazes me how dragged out The Hobbit Part 1 was in comparison to Fellowship. If the stories had been reversed and Jackson was making LOTR right now, Fellowship would have a 30 minute dead period where the Hobbits hang out with Tom Bambadil.

  • Fanboyz drool | December 17, 2012 1:24 PM

    It's several writers. Who cares about the book. this is what worked and didn't work in the MOVIE. Gah, fanboyz.

  • BEF | December 17, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    Pretty much my thoughts exactly. Only other thing I'd add to the "didn't work" column the troll/cooking scene, which added absolutely nothing other than the first of many, Gandolf steps in at the last moment to save them scenes (and mostly sparing us from the silly humor of the scene).... Also, why is Bilbo so dear to Gandolf? Dude doesn't even remember him.

  • DeftLip | December 17, 2012 12:51 PMReply

    "-- a complete invention, found nowhere in the book --" The Stone Giants are in the book, right before they enter the goblin's cave. The movie just makes an action sequence out of it as opposed to something mentioned in the distance.

  • Alex | December 17, 2012 12:42 PMReply

    Shows what poor readers you are... the stone giants are in the book:

    When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang.
    They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.
    "If we don't get blown off or drowned, or struck by lightning, we shall be picked up by some giant and kicked sky-high for a football."
    "I must see if I can't find a more or less decent giant to block it up again," said Gandalf

  • kitcon | December 17, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    It also felt like Jackson took what he thought people liked in the original trilogy and gave heaping servings of it -- panoramic shots, vertiginous camera work, lots of views of multi-level subterranean lairs. Not new, just more.

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