Sunday, December 23, 2012

An Unexpected Journey: 1/3 of The Hobbit Trilogy and 1/3 of a Great Movie

     The Lord of the Rings trilogy, arguably the most beloved group of fantasy novels this side of A Song of Ice and Fire, amassed over 1100 pages of written word by J. R. R. Tolkien throughout the years. Nine years ago, director Peter Jackson miraculously finished turning those 1100 dense pages into three films that were perfect in their emotional depiction of Frodo's epic journey with The Ring. Flash forward to this year and Peter Jackson is showing the world his first film in a new trilogy based on The Hobbit, Tolkien's more lighthearted story that weighs in at just over...300 pages. So, 1100 pages = 3 films for the first trilogy, and 300 pages = 3 films for the second trilogy. Something doesn't feel quite right, and it's not: Jackson's first film in the so-called Hobbit trilogy, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, has plenty of exciting action and incredible special effects, but with a run time of nearly three hours, they are few and far between. It's a small story that's going to be stretched into a long film series, and this first film suffers for it--it's mostly set-up instead of sensational.
     The story is set 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings: Bilbo Baggins (now portrayed by a younger Martin Freeman instead of Ian Holm of the original Rings films) is living a nice quiet life on the hillside, with gorgeous sunlit views and scrumptious food. Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, who hasn't missed a beat since playing the The Grey in the original trilogy) shows up, smoking his peace pipe, and he convinces Bilbo to go on an adventure (an unexpected journey, if you will). So in walk 13 dwarfs, and the group sets out on dangerous mission...wait, no they don't. Jackson focuses on these new characters for as long as time will allow: they eat all of Bilbo's food, make fun of Bilbo, tell stories, sing songs, and put away dishes quicker than the forest animals in Snow White. They try to convince Bilbo to go, but he's reluctant. They try to convince him even more--a clear problem in trying to expand this story into three films.
     Inevitably, off they go on their adventure! The dwarfs are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and they are questing across Middle Earth to attempt to reclaim their homeland, The Lonely Mountain, which is now the lair of a powerful Dragon named Smaug (we see barely a glimpse of the fire-breather in this installment). Bilbo and Gandalf tag along for moral support. Even the most devoted fans of the Rings universe will grow somewhat weary of the proceedings: there's a lot of walking and talking and orc-fighting, then more running and yelling and vacationing at an Elvish resort that almost put me to sleep. There's no real tension or danger: we know Bilbo lives because he's a character in Lord of the Rings, we know there are two more installments in this story, and every single time the group is super far up shit creek, Gandalf casts a spell or kisses a butterfly and enemies turn to stone or giant eagles swoop in to carry the group to safety.
     Martin Freeman does a fine job as Bilbo, showing off some of the same awkward nice-guy charm and sarcasm that he displayed so well in the British (definitive) version of The Office. The other performances are solid, too. The visuals are the other major problem with this first installment of The Hobbit. I'm hesitant to criticize a film because of its 3-D or frame rate. But Peter Jackson has made an interesting decision with An Unexpected Journey: he filmed it in 48 FPS instead of the standard 24 FPS. (You can only see this 48 FPS version at certain theaters, maybe only Westbrook in is sometimes referred to as "HFR"). This decision was made to reduce motion blur and flickering that can be found in fast-paced films that are filmed at 24 FPS (basically every film now produced). A few things can be said about the higher frame rate: it is incredibly realistic. You won't see a clearer image in film, and it causes some scenes to be strikingly beautiful. But it has the feel of a new television's settings, where everything is sped up a little and looks like it has been filmed with a video camera. A very non-cinematic feel. Consequently, I don't care to ever see a movie filmed in 48 frames per second ever again. The 3-D, in its typical atrocity, muddies the image in a dark tint and induces the normal rubbing of eyes.
     Late into the run time of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo falls down into a cave that is patrolled by a Rings favorite, Gollum (portrayed brilliantly with motion capture by Andy Serkis, again). He adds an excitement and danger that had been lacking in the film until that point, especially when he loses his ring and suspects Bilbo of the thievery. But this feeling is really just nostalgia for the original Rings trilogy, when excitement, danger and tension lurked among every dark place like a ring wraith waiting for the kill. There was no filler, because there was no time for filler. The same can't be said for this first third of The Hobbit story, though Peter Jackson did do something correctly: he left plenty of room for improvement.     (C+) 

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