Movie review: Return to Middle-Earth with 'The Hobbit'

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”


New Line Cinema

2 hours, 49 minutes

In 2001, when the first installment of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was released, there was a palpable sense of relief. The movie was kind of a gamble, especially for fans of the novels. Peter Jackson was the Oscar-winning fantasy auteur he would become, and previous attempts to bring Tolkien to life had been sketchy at best.

But lo and behold, the movie was really good and brought Middle-Earth to life brilliantly. That relief built itself up into a passionate following, which then went on to make the next two films some of the most successful, critically and economically, of all time. But it all started with a sense of unease; a feeling of dread that this all just wasn’t going to work.

By contrast, this week’s big screen release of “The Hobbit,” the prequel to “Lord of the Rings,” has exactly the opposite set of expectations, and, unfortunately, is going to suffer exactly the opposite kind of reaction. We’ve all been to Middle-Earth now. We’ve spent the last decade jumping in and out of it whenever we please. With “The Hobbit,” there’s no sense of “will this work?” Instead its a fait accompli, “Of course it will work. It’ll be amazing. It’ll be stunning. It’ll transport me right back to that place I was in 2001.”

But it won’t. And so, “The Hobbit” will be listed as a bit of disappointment. It won’t make as much money as expected, and the critics will be somewhat jaded in their assessments. It’s too bad. “The Hobbit” isn’t perfect, but neither was “The Fellowship of the Ring.” This new film has problems, but the main difference is that it feels old while it’s predecessor felt new.

The story centers around a young Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman. When a mysterious wizard, Gandalf, arrives at his door and announces that our hero is going to go on an adventure, Bilbo writes the old man off as a crackpot. But when 13 rowdy dwarves arrive for dinner later in the evening, things start looking a bit more serious. Eventually, of course, Bilbo is convinced to leave his tidy Hobbit hole and go off into the wide world, but this is anything but a pleasant holiday. The dwarves are on a quest to recover their homeland, and their rich stores of gold, from an evil dragon named Smaug who has taken up residence in the halls of the mountain king. Along the way they’ll have to deal with Orcs, Elves, Goblins, Trolls, a nutcase riding a sled pulled by rabbits, and one very nasty, very familiar little fellow wasting away in a deep, deep cave with only his precious to keep him company. Bilbo certainly has an adventure in front of him, and whether he’ll make it home from this unexpected journey or not, remains to be seen.

The perils of the expectations game aside, this film does have some drawbacks. For one, the story is much simpler than “LOTR.” “The Hobbit” was intended as a kind of young-adult fantasy story and is written that way. It’s akin to the relationship “Tom Sawyer” has to “Huckleberry Finn.” Yeah, they’re both Twain and have the same characters, but no one would argue that “Finn” is a game changer while “Tom Sawyer” is just a fun read. Therefore, instead of the complex political maneuverings and varied character pool that “Rings” draws from, “The Hobbit” is a very straightforward set of mishaps and rescues embodied by mostly thin characters and a minimum of subtlety.

Basically the story goes like this: Dwarves and Bilbo trek along until they run smack into some dire trouble. The first one is giant mountain trolls. Bilbo then does something to distinguish himself while the dwarves get themselves captured or, at one point, treed. Next, something happens to spur the dwarves to fight back, staging an all-out battle with the trolls, orcs, goblins, or whatever. Finally, Gandalf steps in and saves everybody.

This happens at least three or four times in this film, and the intervening screen-time is mostly filled with the characters traveling from the last melee to the next. “The Hobbit” is a relatively short book, and there has been some trepidation from the geek community about the fact that Peter Jackson (read: MGM Studios) has decided to make this a trilogy as well. By stretching “The Hobbit” into two films, and using source material and unfinished manuscripts to cobble together a third, “The Hobbit” films will presumably lead directly into “LOTR,” making for a grand, six film, 18-hour cinematic extravaganza.

Jackson, as he did with the original trilogy, has shot all the footage for all three films, and is now working on the CGI for the next two movies. So regardless of the relative success or disappointment that “The Hobbit” engenders, we’ll be seeing more from Middle-Earth before too long. I enjoyed “The Hobbit” for the most part, so I’m in.

One last thing: One of the biggest uproars among the geek community regarding this film is one that is a little technical and may not make much sense to the casual moviegoer. Jackson decided to shoot the movie not only in 3D, which has it’s own detractors, but in high definition digital using a frame rate of 48 frames per second. You see this referred to as HFR (high frame rate) and is being touted as the future of cinema. Most films you see on the big screen are shot at half that, 24 frames per second. 24fps gives a slight gauziness, a blur to motion, that we don’t see in real life. Most television, especially soap operas and reality television, are shot at higher frame rates. That’s why a movie looks different from a TV show.

Everyone knows the difference when they see it, but few realized that their television programs were actually created using a higher quality image. Of course, quality is a relative term. The HFR has the effect of making the intricate detail in special effects pop off the screen, but it also makes anything involving real humans look like a “behind the scenes” documentary.

Personally, I can’t stand the look and was very glad to know that what is showing here on the Peninsula is the “downgraded” version, having been post-converted back to 24 frames per second. I thought “The Hobbit” looked gorgeous, and feel no need to see what it would look like as if it were actually occurring right in my back yard. Many of you probably know what I’m talking about, but if you don’t, head over to an electronics store or any big box store and look at the display of televisions. Many now offer a feature called “True Motion” or something in that vein. It’s a way to mimic HFR on your TV, and it’s all the rage, apparently.

Not for me, though. They’ll have pry my flatscreen out of my cold, dead fingers before I go that route. Luckily, this weekend at least, that wasn’t a fight I had to have.

Grade: B+

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is rated PG-13 for violence, and frightening scenes of battle.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.


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