Before the One Ring was rediscovered, before the Fellowship was formed and before the return of the King, an unexpected journey involving a company of dwarves, a wizard and a Hobbit took place in a faraway land. Welcome back to Middle Earth for the very first time. Get set for disappointment.
What Is It?
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is Peter Jackson's latest foray into the land of magic, rings and walking, and it's the first of three movies set to tackle the J.R.R Tolkien prequel to Lord of the Rings.
It goes for 169 minutes, it's shot in HFR 3D (48 frames per second rather than 24 frames per second) and the best time to go to the bathroom is either when Bilbo Baggins first denies the quest and the dwarves start to sing by the fire in his Hobbit hole, or when Lord Elrond offers the dwarves food in Rivendell. You've got about four minutes at either of those.
More: What Is HFR 3D?
What's It Like?
You all likely know the story (and if you don't there's still time to find out), so a plot synopsis seems irrelevant. Despite the well-known source material, it's worth noting there are spoilers beyond this point.
Stand-out characters include Martin Freeman (Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, Sherlock) and his portrayal of the slightly selfish, Hobbit-homebody Bilbo Baggins and the ever-brilliant Sir Ian McKellan (Lord Of The Rings, X-Men) as Gandalf the Grey.
There are a lot of familiar faces back for this unexpected journey — including Aussie favourites Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Transformers) and Cate Blanchett (Babel, I'm Not There) — and it's nice to see everyone back on-board for the ride.
As far as characters are concerned, there's not a tedious or ill-thought out character to speak of and all of the performances are solid, believable and thoroughly entertaining.
So the billion-dollar question is: what's HFR 3D actually like? There are many ways to describe it, but the best I think is that it's profoundly complicated and entirely contextual.
During the first half of the movie, we see a lot of well-lit, outdoor action scenes going on. Wargs and orcs chase Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarf company across wide-open plains, Bilbo flees the Shire while trying to catch up with his company, and Elves return to Rivendell after a hunt. At each and every turn, Jackson tries to be clever by showing you what HFR 3D looks like up close. It's at these moments the film is at its weakest.
You know when you hold your hand up in front of a fan or a TV and wave it back and forth? You'll notice that the hand looks blurry, right? That's what the first hour-and-a-half of The Hobbit look like: blurry and badly rendered.
3D shot at 24 frames per second looks fine because the special effects that are being made 3D blend into the shot nicely due to the soft blur and slightly dimmed scenery (thanks to the 3D glasses). With HFR 3D, it's double the frame rate, so you know exactly where the seams are in all of the special effects, especially when the scene is well lit.
It's not until the indoor and cavern scenes that this film takes your breath away. It's in the goblin cave and Bilbo's game with Smeagol (Andy Serkis) that The Hobbit comes into its own. Everything is super-sharp and insanely well thought out. Each shot is pieced together in layers and it really shows. Each layer that has been spliced into place has been adjusted so that the depth of the scene is just right. In these darker scenes you never feel like you can spot the special effects like you can in the cold light of New Zealand day.
Another example of perfect HFR 3D use is the arrival at Rivendell. If you can find a better looking waterfall on film as this, I'll pay you whatever it grosses at the box office. Water is stunningly realistic in this film. These effects alone — if you're into that sort of thing — warrant the price of an IMAX admission ticket.
My only other real concern with The Hobbit is the length: 169 minutes of film happened right before my eyes yesterday morning, and it's something I could recap in 10 minutes. There are so few key plot points in this film that you can get up and go to the bathroom pretty much whenever you want and still come back without skipping a beat or whispering to your companion to catch you up.
That's not so bad with the first movie: it's setting the scene like Fellowship of the Ring did, right? Right, but Lord Of The Rings is far more action-packed than The Hobbit, with battles left, right and centre, more characters than you can poke Gandalf's stick at and relevant backstories to boot. It was an layered film that you miss when you see The Hobbit.
How they plan on getting another two films — presumably as long — is beyond me.
The Worst Part
Massive spoiler: giant birds fix everything in these goddamn ring movies. Why can't we just call the giant birds up at the beginning of the quest, get them to ferry our heroes over to their destination, kick some arse and fly back in time for dinner?
The giant birds are cheap, Peter Jackson, and you know you ought to be cutting around them.
Also, there are four songs in this movie. Save those for the director's cut, buddy.
Should You See It?
It's not the best-looking 3D film of 2012 — that honour still goes to Life of Pi, but it's technically magnificent and the first film to be shot in HFR 3D: something I'd like to see more of here and there in the future.
You'll go and see The Hobbit for one of two reasons: the first is that you loved Lord Of The Rings and couldn't wait to get back into Middle Earth. The second is that you enjoy the technology of filmmaking and the intricacies of production. The look of this film (in the right places) is simply stunning, and if it's not released onto 4K at the time of the home-cinema launch, it'll be an opportunity missed. If you're looking for a light popcorn-movie or an action film, skip this one.
Images: New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers