The Hobbit
Part 1
An Unexpected Journey

I was worried that The Hobbit movies were going to be Peter Jackson’s Star Wars prequels. But this first film is no Phantom Menace. Yes, the movie is over-stuffed. But it is over-stuffed with hobbitty goodness, and I love me some hobbits. And elves. And dwarves. And Gollum and Gandalf and goblins and all the rest. If anything, I’m worried the filmmakers have not left enough action for the next two films.

The movie opens with a prologue showing the dragon Smaug taking over the dwarf kingdom of Erebor. This is where we will be headed. Like the Jews from Egypt, the dwarves are scattered and forced to wander through the wilderness. They want their homeland back, and a generation later, a small group of them will band together to slay the dragon and re-occupy the great mountain kingdom.

The prologue is told by the older Bilbo (Ian Holm), writing for the benefit of his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). The day is the same as the opening of the Lord of the Rings movies, whereby Jackson and his usual co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with Guilermo del Toro, who had originally been slated to direct the film(s), situate audiences unfamiliar with the book. From there, we flash back 60 years to meet young Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, and the story begins in earnest.

The choice to begin with the story of the dwarves is not true to the book, so far as I remember, but it presents a scene of drama and action right off, and is in keeping with the style of storytelling throughout the whole film. Whereas the book confines itself to Bilbo’s perspective, the filmmakers are liberal in cutting here and there on the whole of Middle Earth. This gives the movie a more epic feel, in keeping with the earlier films, and allows the audience to meets some of our old favorite characters.

Jackson has always had a penchant for the grotesque, and I’m sure some of the new characters here will turn off audiences who are easily icked-out. Gandalf’s fellow wizard, the loopy Radagast the Brown, is a bit too cartoonish for my taste. But the Goblin King, with his great warty neckbeard and theatrical flourishes (Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna) is a repulsively wonderful creation. (Is this the hand of del Toro, cinema’s current master of monsters?)

The whole goblin sequence, in fact, is a masterwork of imagination. It is intercut with another outstanding performance by Andy Serkis and the Gollum animators that will probably overshadow it in most people’s minds, but if you can’t love a madcap action chase across many levels of rickety wood bridges suspended over vertiginous caverns, I’m not sure you can really appreciate where Peter Jackson’s talent touches the sublime.

Do we need to see rock giants battling to progress the story? No. But just look at the filmmaking! Motion, editing, music, suspense, wonder. It’s all there.

And the story is a strong one, if not quite with the weight of the ring cycle. They’ve managed to build in a good solid character arc for Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the main dwarf. Therefore, the movie has a feeling of completeness to it, even as you realize their quest has just begun.

48fps High Frame Rate 3D vs. regular 24fps 2D in Sony Digital 4k

Yes, I saw the movie twice. I wanted to make up my own mind about the 48fps version of the film, which has engendered much controversy. My opinion: not ready for prime time. If Douglas Trumbull is right, there are higher frame rates that give the effect of looking through a window. This is not high enough. It looked, to my eyes, just like a PAL tv show, which is not surprising, given that PAL has a 50i standard. (48 frames-per-second refresh rate looks just like a 50 fields-per-second refresh rate.) Beyond a stagey, 1990’s BBC mini-series look, some of the motion looked sped up and unnaturally jerky. With the shutter forced to 1/48 minimum, the usual creamy cinematic motion blur was eliminated not only from the HFR-version, but also the 2D downconversion. (I don’t think the average viewer will notice on the 2D version.) UPDATE 12/18/12: Apparently the shutter was 1/64 or 270ยช. Not sure why this choice was made.

Another thing that makes it look like TV is that the whites are blown out in many of the shots. Given that the movie was shot on a pair of RED Epic cameras, with their 13.5 stops of latitude, I wonder if this was more an artistic choice done in the color-grading phase. Detail in the shadows and highlights is a hallmark of a cinematic a.k.a. film look. Blown whites is a hallmark of ugly digital video.

The 3D, though, is better at the higher frame rate. I legitimately flinched twice during the film, as a sheer reflex reaction. I’ve never done that with regular 3D. This higher frame rate fixes 3D’s issues with stuttery motion, especially with all the digital swooping camera moves that Jackson is so fond of. (Of course RealD 3D already has a 120fps refresh rate to fix this – it just repeats more frames.)

Laypeople will see the difference with HFR. A vocal minority is loving the format, and far be it from me to contradict them. (This guy saw it in the same theater as I did.) In my unscientific data collection, it seems like 1/10 people really like the format, 5/10 don’t and the rest are indifferent.

Apparently James Cameron is planning Avatar II at 60fps, and Trumbull is running tests at 72fps and higher. It may be that those frame rates look better. 48fps is what was “doable” in Jackson’s timeframe. I think he should have run some more tests and focus groups and asked — should it be done?

The answer is no. But I appreciate the amazing effort he and his visual and technical artists have put in. I appreciate trying to push the envelope. And I definitely recommend going to see the HFR version and making up your own mind, especially if you are interested in the technology of film.

MORE:
D.P. Vincent Laforet had much the same reaction as I did to the HFR, and a great technical discussion of the new format
Interview with screenwriter Philippa Boyens