{in theatres} The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 14, 2012 by sarah

Friends, I’ve just returned from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in high-frame-rate 3D and I can tell you two things: 1. The film remains true to the book’s spirit, if not its letter. 2. The high-frame-rate format did indeed enhance my Hobbit viewing enjoyment.

Let’s deal with the second point first. I’m making a firm recommendation to see the high-frame-rate 3D. There were just too many gasp-worthy visuals that you’d miss otherwise. Did it look different? Yes. Did it take me a while to get used to it? Yes, but only as long as the now-Jackson-standard (and well-done) introduction-for-context lasted. Did I feel sick at all? Nope…and I had a fair amount of popcorn before the show started, too. Is there room for improvement in the use of the format? Yes, as with all new technology. (I thought the storm-giant sequence in particular lost energy because it was supposed to feel disorienting, not detailed.) Did my mouth drop open and were people around me audibly cursing with joy because of the awesomeness meeting their eyeballs? Yes. Repeatedly.

I thought the high frame rate really shown in three areas: Landscapes, wide fight shots and character close-ups. Some critics of the format have compared the look to bright soap operas. I think a better comparison would be highly detailed nature documentaries, like watching the BBC’s Planet Earth on Blu-Ray. But, um, more. The landscapes were tactile in a way I really haven’t seen before on film. The foreground was rockier and mossier and the layers of middle- and background had a keener sense of distance. It made me think briefly (and forgive the over-statement…it’s late and I’m highly caffeinated) of Tolkien-compatriot C.S. Lewis’s description of heaven in The Great Divorce as being so infinitely solid that new arrivals can’t bear to walk on the grass barefoot.

I also found the highly detailed format a boon to epic battle scenes. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was known for raising the bar on fantasy fights…The Hobbit does it again. The flashback to the dwarves’ war with the orcs was especially gripping. I’m not sure if the higher frame rate simply allows for more visual information to be processed, letting you take in more action in a second, or what, but the battles felt more visceral.

I really appreciated the reality the high-frame-rate format added to characters’ close-ups. At times, I thought the LOTR series got a little, I don’t know, glow-y when it came to its heroes’ close-ups. Maybe it was just Frodo’s wide-eyed dewey-ness. In The Hobbit, you can see how worn Gandalf is and Bilbo’s every hesitation and twitch. The highlight of the entire movie may be the riddle contest between Gollum and Bilbo, deep in the goblins’ mountain. Gollum’s expressions and facial details are so lifelike that he may be the most real character of all (kudos to Andy Serkis and the CG team). Instead of highlighting the artificiality of makeup and props, as I feared high frame rate would do, it had me noticing little details, like Dwalin’s tattoos, Gandalf’s dirty fingernails and Bilbo’s scraped knuckles.

Finally, for no other reason, the last scene of the film is worth seeing in HFR 3D. I won’t tell you why, but, please, just trust me. Me and the oooh-ing and ahhhh-ing noises the audience in my screening made.

So, in short, yes, I liked the high-frame-rate experience. And I’m looking forward to seeing how other filmmakers use and improve the format in the future.

Now on to the story. It was fascinating to see how Tolkien’s single volume book is being separated into three just-under-three-hour films. One way this is being done? The film includes much extraneous material. My best guess is that some of this new content is sourced from the Tolkien canon and some of it is from the imaginations of Jackson and his screenplay cohorts Fran Walsh (Jackson’s long-time writing and life partner), Philippa Boyens (Jackson and Walsh’s third musketeer on LOTR, King Kong and The Lovely Bones) and Guillermo del Toro (beloved genre master famous for Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and more). Because it’s now 4:38 a.m., I’m not going to attempt to sort out which is which. But I will say that the major changes and additions were helpful in translating the story to a blockbuster screen.

Some members of my book club criticized the book for not delving deeply enough into the dwarves’ motivations for their journey. The film makes those very, very clear, both in fact and theme. Other major changes give us greater insight into Thorin’s backstory and move Bilbo’s transition from bumbler to unlikely hero up in the story’s sequence. We also get more context of how The Hobbit‘s story fits into the grander LOTR future, especially with a debate between Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Sarumon on the wisdom of the dwarves’ mission. I may come back to these changes later on with a more critical eye, but at this moment, I’m a satisfied fantasy film-goer who thoroughly enjoyed the story she was shown.

One final thought: I highly suggest that you stumble into a screening in which a friendly fellow audience member reads The Hobbit aloud before the show starts. A guy named Leland spent an hour reading the first chapter to us. He even did voices. It was amazing. Thank you, Leland, wherever you are.

gimme five

Good for: Tolkien fans and visual-awesomeness appreciators

Invite your: Friend who has the first lines of the book memorized: “In a hole in the ground there lived hobbit…”

Snack on: Twice-a-day dinners and second breakfasts; the movie is long enough to double up on snacks

Bring your: Elvin blade and copy of the book to cross-reference afterward

Skip if: You just aren’t a fantasy fan

What did you think of The Hobbit? And which format did you see?

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» Gimme Some Life: Hobbit Giveaway & 2012 Holiday Book Giveaway

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» Gimme Some Reads: Hobbit Gift Set Giveaway & Literary Brass Cuff Giveaway

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About sarah

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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16 thoughts on “{in theatres} The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. I loved this movie! I am not sophisticated enough to know about HFR, but man, it was gorgeous. It had a hyper-realness that was an amazing simulation of the way I see an epic story in my head when I’m reading it.

    Freeman was born to play Bilbo Baggins. Not for nothing do tumblr-ites often refer to him as “actual hobbit Martin Freeman.” I thought the opening dinner scene and the riddle scene were essential to get right, and they were flawless.

    I did think they stretched the material a bit, with the orc battle going on too long, and the stone giant battle (was that in the book? I don’t recall it, but I read it about 35 years ago, so it might have been.) I didn’t mind, though. Can’t wait for the next one.

    - bryn

  2. I liked it. People who call the HFR soap opera-ish are nuts. Just plain nuts. It doesn’t look like a soap opera. It doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen on screen before. The only thing it looks like is real life, in perfect lighting, with better than 20-20 vision. I felt like I was there, looking over the characters’ shoulders. As corny as it sounds.

    Eliot (my 10-yr-old son) just kept saying, “This is amazing. It’s amazing.”

    Btw, Sarah, his favorite part, he says, were “the rock giants.” So there’s your young boy perspective for you.

    The only aspect I didn’t care for were Guillermo DelToro’s fingerprints on some of the characterizations. I liked the movie Hellboy, but beyond that I don’t really care for DelToro. I despised Pan’s Labrynth. But it didn’t ruin the movie for me or anything. I could’ve sat there another 2 hrs had it kept going.

    - DavidH

  3. Well said, Sarah. And I agree on all points. LOVE the comparison to The Great Divorce.

    - bet

  4. Garh! HFR isn’t available in Birmingham. Bollocks. Guess I’ll just have to see it normal. But I can’t wait to see it!

    - Melody Harris

  5. Nice. Was literally waiting for your review (more of the hfr than the content) before deciding on when/where to see it today. But i think im set to catch an HFR matinee at Merriam.

    Also, did you see that review from here and Now I posted yesterday in your comments? One of the criticisms was that Jackson made some of the scenes, especially battle scenes TOO epic, that the nature of the book was more simple. Thoughts?

    - maux

    • I think you’ll be intrigued by the HFR. I didn’t read the review you sent yesterday because I try to not read anything before I see films so I go in clean and review based on my own impressions. (I’m easily influenced : ) )

      There were definitely more epic battle scenes in the film than in the book, especially in the beginning, but I can tell why, from a storytelling perspective. Half of those epic battle scenes are flashbacks that explain Thorin and the dwarves’ back story…and then another couple of them are byproducts of upping the drama on Thorin’s storyline. (You’ll remember book club discussion on his responses/actions at the end of the book…the additions to his story in the films seem to be setting the audience up for that and answering some of the “why” questions the book club had.) I’ll go take a look at the review now!

      - sarah

  6. Just read this over at Slate.com:

    “So how bad is that first hour of the film, before your eyes get accustomed to its queer and vivid look? It’s awful, but that’s less a product of the fancy format than the shoddy content. The fact is, the introduction to The Hobbit would be wretched at any frame rate whatsoever, just as it would be an eyesore in both 3-D and 2-D, a snooze in 70 mm or 35 mm, a crapfest in color or a bore in black-and-white. Film purists take note: The best way to watch this footage is at a rate of precisely zero frames per second—to ignore it altogether, and read LOTR fan-fiction on your smartphone until it’s over.”

    How would you respond to that, Sarah?

    - Nathan

    • I would have to ask why they thought it was shoody/craptastic/ an eyesore…can’t really respond without specifics. But I’d ask nicely in a soothing voice and maybe step back a step or two because they sound angrier than any movie should make somebody. (And, please, call me out if I ever review something like this…one of my pet peeves is name-calling reviews that aren’t actually describing the problems…I don’t want to become a bitter movie writer, so please point it out if I start down that road.)

      I could make a couple guesses about why they didn’t like the beginning. Maybe they don’t like overview introductions. Hard-core Tolkiens might find them redundant to information they’ve inhaled since they were kids, but I think they are necessary for the medium: a blockbuster fantasy film. You have to assume large portions of the audience haven’t read the books. And then you have to give them enough context so that they aren’t leaning over to their more-well-read neighbor and asking questions every five minutes. In that respect, those intros are actually a huge kindness to Hobbit nerds everywhere; they save them from intrusive neighbor questioning.

      It’s also possible they didn’t like the pacing of the beginning. After giving the context intro, the film spends some time placing the film on the LOTR timeline. And then it follows the arrival of the dwarves in a pretty faithful fashion to the book. Meaning, it’s leisurely and droll and may make impatient Tomnoddies tense.

      Those are my best-guess responses to to Mr. Craptastic up there. Who is probably some famous film reviewer that I’ve just called Mr. Craptastic. Sorry, sir. Or ma’am.

      - sarah

  7. Some of the extra material, specifically the opening sequence and other dwarf related tidbits, came from the appendices of LOTR. The Tolkien estate would not grant Jackson et al. the rights to The Silmarillion, which would have helped flesh out the connectivity between The Hobbit and LOTR.

    Also, solid review. I am still not sold on HR-3D (just not a 3-D fan…until they get better glasses for those of us who wear glasses), but I am pleased to hear that it enhanced your viewing.

    - Nathan