Thursday, January 17, 2013

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Last December, shortly before the release of the first installment of the long-awaited film adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Hobbit, filmmaker Peter Jackson announced that the movie would be a trilogy rather than only two parts as originally planned. Jackson made this decision based on the amount of backstory he and his screenwriting partners had included in the film, pulling from the lengthy appendices at the end of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. This material is part of the extensive mythology the author had created for his Middle Earth universe, much of which was later re-purposed for the Silmarillion.

In truth, this backstory is unnecessary for the telling of the Hobbit—the original novel was essentially a simple stand-alone, episodic children’s book, more lighthearted and very different in tone than the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy that came later.

Having done Lord of the Rings first, however, has given Jackson the opportunity to connect the Hobbit more closely with the trilogy and place it in the grander context of Middle Earth mythology and the earlier trilogy. Radagast the wizard, Azog the the Orc Defiler, and the mysterious Necromancer are all additions not in the original book or only vaguely hinted at.

As a result, some reviews have criticized the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for being bloated and overfull; indeed, the film in some ways does play like one of the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies that Jackson released on DVD, which included extra scenes and story arcs that fleshed out the trilogy.

Having said that, I saw the film with others who did not possess the same depth of knowledge or love as me for the trilogy, and all greatly enjoyed the film and weren’t fazed by the burden of the added storylines, which reflect the richness of Tolkien’s world and mythology, as channeled by Jackson. And judging by the box office returns, audiences haven’t minded either.

Another controversy related to the film has been Jackson’s use of a new higher-frame-rate 3D technology that provides much greater image definition and clarity. I ended up seeing it at one of L.A.’s last remaining large classic movie houses, the Village Theatre in Westwood, outfitted with the format’s new projector. Though I was concerned since there were reports of people feeling ill during early screenings because of the high frame rate, I ultimately decided to see the Hobbit in the new format since this was clearly reflected the director’s vision. The picture was indeed incredibly hyper realistic—I have described it as looking at times like closed-circuit TV. And as some have noted, the clarity of the picture makes some sequences look like the film sets they are.

Though I have to say the new format did not distract from the movie, there were nevertheless moments when the clarity was startling and, in other cases, not particularly aesthetically appealing, I have to say that I’m ultimately not sure what the new format brings to the Hobbit, nor to film in general, other than it attempts to compete with the kind of picture quality audiences have become used to with HD TV and BlueRay. Regardless, I’m glad I saw the film in the new format, though I am curious to see it in regular 35mm film format as well. Jackson spent a great deal of time color grading the earlier trilogy of films and I presume he has done the same for the regular film prints of the Hobbit, so I'd like to see what it looks like compared to the high frame-rate format.

What distinguished Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film adaptations was his ability to find emotional complexity and heart in this story of hobbits, wizards and elves, which, of course, were an essential part of Tolkien’s source material. As such, the Hobbit has similar moments of heart and feeling, all anchored by lead actor Martin Freeman’s warm yet sharp-edged performance as Bilbo—Bilbo’s eventual acceptance by Thorin and the other dwarves as one of their own, Thorin’s quest to regain his kingdom, and, of course, the finding of the One Ring that will later drive the Lord of the Rings and leads to one of the best scenes of the film, where Bilbo and Gollum face off in the dark—puts the film on solid emotional ground. Nevertheless, in truth, this first installment, though full of plenty of action and adventure, feels as though the story has barely started and scratched the surface of the adventure. The brief teaser of seeing the eye of the dragon, Smaug, suddenly awaken from beneath his hoard of treasure gave a brief glimpse of the excitement and adventure to come when the second installment, the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is released this December.

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