The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
It’s been a long time coming. Eagerly awaited by the fans… First officially announced… Then put on hold… Then the director Del Toro had to leave… and finally Jackson came to the rescue. And now, clocking at 169 minutes, it’s finally here… and deserves a review that’s at least as long as the film itself… So, let’s try to start from the beginning.
THE 48 FPS STUFF
It’s almost impossible to review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey without mentioning that little famous (or infamous, depending on how you stand on this) technical issue everybody in Hollywood and in the industry has been talking about: the 48 frames-per-second look. For those who have been living in a cave for the last couple of years, let me quickly explain to you what I am talking about. Peter Jackson has filmed this new trilogy (yes, it is now a trilogy… but more about that later) with special 48 frames-per-second (fps) cameras, instead of the usual common 24fps. The result, once the film gets projected at 48fps speed, is a more detailed, sharper and crisper image with a much higher definition on movement that you’ve ever seen before: a more “immersive experience” (in Jacks0n’s own words) and also a much brighter picture (Usually light loss in 3D movies can be as high as 30%). Obviously most people will see this film projected with standard 24fps machines , so what I am about to say, will probably make very little sense, but since this is heralded as not just the way the director intended it, but also as the future of cinema, I feel it’s worth taking a moment to tell you my gut reactions to it.
Yes, of course, the image definition is impeccable, the light loss is almost unnoticeable and the 3D effect itself is very very very good (one ‘very’ for each ‘D’, though I have to say I still think the 3D in Avatar was better… or maybe just because it was the first), but aside from all that, I couldn’t get out of me a weird feeling of TV movie: it almost looked like high-def video, and not film. Ironically, the higher definition somehow made it look cheaper (which obviously it wasn’t!): for a start it enhanced every single make-up imperfection on the actors and made some of the sets even look a bit fake (especially the ones in Hobbiton). I also noticed a certain discrepancy between the way the actors appeared on screen (i.e. incredibly realistic, vivid and sharp) and the CGI-enhanced sets extensions in the background (which still had a slightly filmic look): the most obvious examples were those scenes Rivendell, where the waterfalls and the city in the background had a slightly opaque look, while the characters and the various real elements around the screen were crisps as if they’d just been filmed with your latest camcorder. There were some other scenes involving giant wolves running about and a dwarf on a sling which looked very strange too (In fact those were the only special effects I had problems with, in among otherwise perfect CGI): I’m sure you’ll agree when you see it too.
And finally, this new 48fps technology, seems to have given the director the chance to move his camera more than it is really needed: just because you can (with 48fps you don’t get as much motion blur as you would on normal 24fps), doesn’t mean that you have to: the result was overblown camera swoops, tilts and pans galore and an overall slightly unrestrained camerawork which sometimes felt rather random, showy and a bit out of place.
Having spoken to some other friends afterwards, I am very aware that a lot of people quite liked this new look, but on me it had the opposite effect as the one intended and instead of making the experience more immersive, it constantly pulled me out.
There you go, I’ve said it. Now that this is out of the way, let’s talk about the film itself.
A BAD START
One thing is certain, hard-core fans of the previous LOTR trilogy will probably love this chapter too. It was clearly made for them, and since there are a lot of those fans around the globe, I can safely bet this film will make millions of gazillions of dollars, but I get the feeling that it might not be such an Oscar favourite as the previous trilogy was.
Peter Jackson is undeniably a talented man, but we must be honest with ourselves, though he’s certainly one of the most revered and successful film-makers in Hollywood today, I’m not sure even his hard-core fans will be able to deny that when it comes to be harsh on his own material, or getting to the point of a scene and cutting things down, he is definitely not one of the best. He would be the first one to admit it. We all remember the multiple endings of “The Return of the King“, or the long hour-plus before we actually even heard about the fact that there was a giant gorilla in a movie entitled King Kong… and don’t get me started on the Lovely Bones, possibly the most misjudged film of 2009… As far as The Hobbit part 1 is concerned, well, I can safely report that that same trend continues here: this time in the form of multiple beginnings!!
In fact the first hour of the film has so many false starts, back stories, flashback, and introductions, that at some point I actually started to wonder whether that “unexpected” thing from the title was going to be the fact that the joueny might never actually happen!!
It is of course, once again, a beginning that wants to please everyone: the fans from the book and the ones from the previous trilogy alike (there is no other explanation to a very slow and quite indulgent preamble featuring Eliaja Wood and Ian Holm reprising their roles from the previous series: I had an hard-core fan sitting in front of me commenting how he loved the fact that Frodo was there… Enough said. It will make the whole saga feel very uniform, but in this film it just had no place!!). Sadly the slow start (and by start I mean at least the first third of the Hobbit pt.1 prevents it from being completely successful.. But there are other faults aside from pace.
It’s in that first hour that we’re also introduced to Richard Armitage‘s Thorin, King of the Dwarves, in a scene that aside from giving a back story to the character, fails to give us anything interesting about this character and ultimately to make us care about him. As the film goes on, Thorin continues to be a two-dimentional and rather predictable character. And it’s a shame because Thorin should really be one of the main focus of the film.
It’s obvious that the casting of Armitage is trying to replicate the success of the casting of Vigo Mortensen, but sadly the admittedly un-carismatic dwarf make-up (hiding any good feature that Armitage might have) and the fact that Thorin as a character seems to have pretty much the same expression throughout the whole film (or at least that’s how it’s coming through), prevent us from truly engaging with him… Hopefully he’ll be more developed in the sequels, but so far he certainly seems to lack that aura of gravitas, mystery and charisma that Vigo Mortensen‘s Aragorn used to have. Not sure whether to blame, the actor, the character, the director or the original story itself… or maybe even all of them.
But Armitage is only one of 13 dwarves in the film: in fact the Hobbit Pt.1 spends a considerable amount of time in one of the weakest scenes of the film, introducing us to all of them. This was a completely out-of-place sequence that seemed to belong to a different film or series all together: one for very young children! It was some sort of bad comedic/slapstick sequence, which was so long and unfunny that actually left most of my audience silent throughout. To add to the confusion was the fact that between the heavy make-up, identical costumes and lack of any interesting characterisation, most of the dwarves look like each other and it was pretty hard to tell most of them apart even by the end of the film.
Martin Freeman was to me the only saving grace of the first third. I must confess that I would probably watch Freeman reading a phone directory anyway, but in the Hobbit Part 1, he was certainly the most approachable and sympathetic character of them all, bringing tenderness, irony, bemusement and something to actually grab our attention, because for all the spectacle and CG-wizzardry at display here, there is an ice-cold detachment that permeates most of the characters. It’s as if all of a sudden JAckson was only interested in showing off his techniques and stopped caring about his characters a little bit.
Incindentally, talking about FX, even the now famous “shrinking people” special effects we’ve become so used to from the earlier series, don’t seem to have the same bite in this film, as Gandalf for example seems to grow or shrink from scene to scene according to (In some sequences Bilbo reaches Gandalf’s shoulder, in others, he can just about reach his belly button). And let’s not even mention the fact that every time they use a stunt-giant double it shows from miles away (ops.. I have now mentioned it!).
THINGS FINALLY GET GOING:
As you’re reading this, you might be wondering why on earth did I give it a 7/10 rating if all I’ve been doing so far was slashing the film to pieces?!
Well, let’s just say that once the so-called unexpected journey finally starts and gets passed Rivendell (where another incredibly dull talky, indulgent sequence takes place; a sequence which seems to be there just to please those LOTR fans, once again, and create a link with the previous series), the film finally gets into the right gear, the action begins and the spectacle really takes over!
The first sign of things improving comes in the form of Mountain Trolls and a splendidly choreographed fight sequence, rendered so vividly by the CG animation that it’s hard to fault. Andy Serkis makes his appearance too (other than the fact that he is the second unit director on the film) as Gollum. Now finally the film seemed to get a slightly darker tone, leaving behind the memory of the frankly quite idiotic and childish first sequences with the dwarves singing and getting drunk around a table. It’s interesting to notice this was also the moment that caused the first most spontaneous laugh from the audience, as if everybody felt it was OK to finally relax and enjoy the film because things were moving to the right direction.
From there onwards the film is essentially one incredible set-piece after another, all of which of truly amazing standards. It’s not just the seamless special effects, or the immersive 3D, but the actual design and choreography of them and of course the relentless and yet clear pace to which they’ve all been edited together. A living proof that action scenes don’t need to be chaotic and unnecessarily shaky to work. The sequences up in the mountain with massive giants fighting each others makes the everything we’ve seen in any of those dreadful Transformers movies look tiny and puerile (well… actually pretty much anything makes those films puerile). And of course that chase at the end, which despite an over-swoopy camera work, is one of the most accomplished work of action featuring hundreds of CG characters ever portrayed on screen. I guess the 48fps tool here really pays off!
So after that interminable first hour, all of a sudden time really starts flying by and the next 2 hours (or if you want, the next 2/3 of the film) are really worth the whole price of the ticket and they raise the bar to levels which only some of the best sequences of the previous 3 films managed to get to.
In fact the rest of the Hobbit pt.1, beyond that terrible beginning, is just so good and exciting that for me is enough to give it a 6.5/10 and recommend the film to anyone.
Aside from all the visual I guess the score should also get reviewed, especially because, as Peter Jackson likes to do, the music here seems to plasters the entire film and rarely shuts up, so it’s impossible not to notice it.
Composer Howard Shore plays it pretty very safe, by giving us a score which has essentially very little new, but re-hashes bits and pieces from the previous instalments, a little bit like what John Williams did for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull.To be honest with you, I was absolutely fine with that, mainly because I love those first soundtracks so much, but aside from over-playing it really felt a bit lazy in places: here’s the ring, let’s play the ring theme, from the Fellowship of the Ring. Here’s Gollum, let’s play Gollum theme from the two towers! Uh… a gig bird is flying, get the bird cue going! And so on, and so on… The cue from the admittedly quite embarrassing dwarf song is one of the few new ones, which works pretty well, but gets used over and over again as a main theme.
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE NEXT ONE!
… And then something quite extraordinary happened, which when I started I never thought it would be possible… The film ended and left me wanting more!
Yes, the cliffhanger might be a bit cheap, might feel like an end of an episode from any TV series, but hey, it works wonderfully! (A little funny trivia here: Jackson claims that final shot was actually finished just a few days before the actual premiere in New Zealand).
I guess this is really the most unexpected thing about this journey: the film turns from something quite dull, slow, detached, puerile and without a real drive, into an incredible action romp which surpasses any expectation: it’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s gripping, it’s amazing to look at: a real spectacle!! If only Peter Jackson had been less indulgent and a bit more ruthless with his own material and had really decided to stick with 2 movies instead the promised 3 we are going to get, and left all those long redundant sequences for the extended editions on the DVD (which I would have bought anyway!), this film would have certainly been a lot tighter, more focussed, sharper and less boring: basically a much better film, that would have left another indelible mark in cinema history as another game-changer.
As it is, it’s another chapter in the Tolkien saga which feels perfectly in tune with what we’ve seen before, but it’s just too baggy to surpass the experience of any of the previous instalments.