I thought I had Peter Jackson figured. He took three novels volumes of the Lord of the Rings and pared them down to three completely coherent movies. Two years later, however, his King Kong took what Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoadstack did in an economical 100 minutes and ballooned it up to three hours. The Peter Jackson who made Lord of the Rings was, to be as polite as possible, a man of generous girth. The King Kong Jackson was skinny. It was as if he took all those excess pounds and poured them into the Kong screenplay.
The Hobbit was made by a once-again rotund Jackson, which gave me hope that it would be a story more leanly and efficiently told, but early signs were not good. As a novel, The Hobbit is barely long enough to qualify as a footnote in Lord of the Rings. Yet, Jackson found a way to turn the story first into two movies and then, as it turned out, another trilogy. I was afraid we would be treated to such DVD chapter names as “Bilbo Ties His Shoes.”
The good news, I suppose, is that Jackson isn’t simply padding the narrative to wring two extra admissions out of each of his LOTR fans, but rather he’s mining Tolkein’s voluminous background notes for other material relating to the events in the original novel. As a result, An Unexpected Journey does not feel padded, but moves along at a brisk pace.
The story begins with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) greeting a stranger at his door, a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who invites him to go on an adventure. No thanks, Bilbo says. Adventures aren’t for Hobbits. That night, however, he receives some unexpected house guests in the person of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Artmitage), their deposed king, followed closely by Gandalf.
Home is now behind you. The world is ahead.
It appears that these dwarves are on a quest to reclaim their mountain home, and its hoard of treasure, which is now guarded by a dragon named Smaug, and Bilbo has been dragooned as their “burglar.” Gandalf has neglected to tell the party that Bilbo wasn’t involved in this decision. The Hobbit initially objects, but actually can’t resist the call of adventure.
As entertaining as it is, this movie lacks much of the innocence and charm of the first Lord of the Rings movie, but it would be hard to equal the sense of freshness from Fellowship of the Rings. The real problem is the size of the party with Bilbo. Lord of the Rings has nine characters, and a mix of men, hobbits, dwarves, and elves, so it was relatively easy for them to emerge as individuals. With thirteen very similar characters, all of the dwarves except Thorin tend to merge into the background. To be fair, however, this was also true of the original novel.
Another flaw, if you want to call it that, is something that bugs me about a lot of films heavy in CGI effects, which is what I call the “improbable camera effect.” With computers, it is no big deal for virtual cameras to fly and dart and weave like no physical camera ever could. These shots, more than anything, are the real tip-off that CGI is in use, and the real reason many people think CGI looks “fake.” The escape from the goblin caves, for example, relies too much on the improbable camera, and looks more like a theme park ride than a scene from a movie.
Of course, the swirling and diving camera is hard to resist when you are shooting in 3D, but I think some restraint was in order. Then again, I don’t think the word “restraint” is necessarily in Peter Jackson’s vocabulary.
The real technical innovation of The Hobbit is how they were shot at a frame rate of 48 frames per second, instead of the traditional 24. Unfortunately, I saw the first film at the old traditional frame rate, so I can’t render judgment. The common complaint was the image looked almost too real, more like high-definition television than a theatrical movie. This is understandable. Modern televisions have effective frame rates of 120 or 240 frames per second, so they can take 30 frame per second video and fill in the gaps between frame, making the image look smoother. This looks great when you watch NFL football, but when you watch a Blu-ray movie that way, it just looks all wrong.
We are used to seeing movies at 24 fps. That’s part of the “look” that movies have and always have had. Because The Hobbit looks “different,” our mind rebels against it (for now, anyway). Time will tell if 48fps has a future outside Middle Earth.
At 24 or 48 fps, The Hobbit is still an entertaining film that is not unworthy of the Lord of the Rings films, but it is not their equal, either.