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

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 17, 2012 at 12:15PM

For a long time, it seemed as though "The Hobbit" would never get made. Despite the multi-billion dollar success of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's earlier novel were tangled up, and Jackson didn't even seem to be sure he wanted to go back to Middle Earth. Even once the film got underway, MGM's bankruptcy delayed the film for years, losing original director Guillermo Del Toro in the process.
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What Didn’t Work

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
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.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
3D
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 Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Richard Armitage
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.

Hobbit Eagles
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 Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
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.

This article is related to: Features, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage


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