Although likely to be appreciated more by Tolkien diehards than general audiences, this first chapter of Middle-earth’s prequel trilogy is enlivened by the visuals, the 3D, and the much-publicized introduction of HFR.
Much has been made of the fact that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first film to be shot at double the frames per second in a format process dubbed, appropriately enough, High Frame Rate (HFR). I ignored the incessant hype surrounding it in the months leading up to release, and initially, I didn’t think I’d have anything to report once I saw the film. But as it turns out, I was wrong. There is a noticeable difference in the quality of the projection. It’s comparable, I believe, to that of a high definition television screen; the images are much sharper, the colors are brighter, and the overall effect is uncannily realistic. It’s almost as if the actors were actually in the theater with me and the audience. This has been criticized by those who prefer their visuals classically cinematic. I think that, on its own terms, the process is a resounding success.
As anecdotal evidence of this claim, I offer the fact that I have no complaints about the film’s presentation in 3D. Because I was looking at lighter, clearer, infinitely more lifelike visuals, my eyes could actually register the extra dimension. It helps that Jackson didn’t cop out with gimmicky shots of objects flying directly at the camera, which, given the material, would have been very easy to do; we’re not bombarded or assaulted so much as immersed within this cinematic universe. This is the kind of 3D I prefer, and I have a feeling that most audience members would prefer it too. If all 3D movies were shot and released in this fashion, expensive though it might be, I might actually stop advising readers to save the extra money and opt for a traditional 2D presentation.
Now, here’s the rub: The successful utilization of both 3D and a new formatting process meant that I took more notice of the visuals than of the story or the characters. In all fairness, I must recuse myself as someone who is completely ignorant of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary universe, save for what I gathered from Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy. This means that, even if I had seen An Unexpected Journey in 2D at the traditional frame rate, I probably still would have noticed the visuals above anything else. Going into a film adaptation with no knowledge of its source can be difficult; in the case of a Tolkien adaptation, which involves highly detailed descriptions of people, places, locations, legends, and mythical creatures, it can be downright excruciating. Certain scenes in this movie are so agonizingly encyclopedic that I often got a headache trying to keep track of information.
It’s the first part of a prequel trilogy, with each chapter adapted from a singular source, Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. It takes place sixty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, at which point the Hobbit creature Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a much younger man. The plot involves the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) roping him, unwillingly at first, into a quest to liberate a Dwarf kingdom from an evil dragon. Already on board are a band of thirteen Dwarf creatures; the leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), grandson of the Dwarf King, is now resentful and intolerant of Elves, who witnessed the destruction of the kingdom but didn’t offer any assistance. As Thorin, Bilbo, Gandalf, and the rest journey forward, they encounter trolls that turn to stone in the sunlight, titanic rock creatures that have catastrophic boulder fights, and gigantic eagles that swoop in to save the day. They will also encounter Orcs, Elves, and other Wizards, and of course, Bilbo will have a very fateful run-in with Gollum (Andy Serkis in motion capture) and his precious golden ring.
The High Frame Rate aside, the film is a real sight to behold. As was the case with the previous trilogy, Jackson uses the latest and greatest is computer technology and special effects as well as sets and actual location work to create entire worlds in painstaking detail. We really do believe we’re in an elfin kingdom surrounded by waterfalls, or deep in the bowels of a mountain, or flying high above a field, or nestled within a Hobbit’s home. And there is something mildly nostalgic about seeing actors once again assuming roles we’ve come to love, if only briefly. These would include Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, and Christopher Lee, who seems remarkably spirited for a man who turned ninety during principal photography.
At this point, I realize I’ve said more about how the film looks than I have about the content, the characters, and the subtexts. I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey superficially, but I was also aware that it would be appreciated more by those intimately familiar with the novel as well as with Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth universe. For the uninitiated, the film will feel less like a fantasy adventure and more like a joke they’re not in on. It doesn’t help that, at 169 minutes, it runs a little too long. The length wouldn’t have mattered had it not felt so long. It’s a problem that I believe stems from the fact that, rather than the entirety of The Hobbit, only the opening portions were adapted. This means that there’s plenty in the way of establishing action and character but almost nothing in the way of narrative or emotional resolution. Fortunately, that’s what the second and third chapters are for.