When it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to divide his big screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” into three films instead of the two films that were originally announced there was a wave of backlash across the internet. When I heard this plan it didn’t really change my feelings about the project at all because, frankly, I thought the whole idea of making a film of “The Hobbit” was misguided from the beginning. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was an astounding achievement, an instant classic which changed Hollywood filmmaking and delivered on almost every level. Going back and making a prequel based on Tolkein’s generally insubstantial first novel seemed to serve no purpose other than to be an anti-climax incapable of matching up to what’s come before. The whole thing just seemed like a waste of Peter Jackson’s time, audiences’ money, and the original trilogy’s reputation. I strongly considered boycotting the film altogether, but as the film’s release approached my stance softened a little. I began to think that maybe, just maybe, Jackson had something up his sleeve which would make this movie worthwhile after all, and with nothing better to do the day of the film’s release I took the plunge.
One of the reasons I was still curious to see the film was in order to check out the new format that was being used to display it in certain theaters: 48 FPS (frames per second) projection. The format was supposed to improve the 3D experience and also to give a generally sharper picture by upping the frame rate, what they didn’t say was that it would make the characters on the screen actively move faster throughout the film. For the entire film it looked like everything was moving in fast forward and I half expected their voices to sound like The Chipmunks. On top of that, the presentation gave the whole movie a very soft, almost video-like look which made a lot of the visual effect (particularly the green-screen effects) look actively more fake in relation to the actors. Before the film the audience was told by an usher that the presentation we were about to see was intentional and that our eyes were supposed to adjust to it after ten or fifteen minutes. That wasn’t really true for me, the whole thing just made the film look downright bizarre, I absolutely hated it.
The one thing that the 48 FPS presentation did do as advertised was make the 3D look slightly better, at least on a technical level. Most notably, the jitteriness that seemed to exist along the edges of 3D effect in most films was gone. Is this slight improvement to the 3D worth all the side effects of the 48 FPS presentation? Of course not. I wouldn’t wish this presentation on any 3D movie, but to add insult to injury I found the 3D in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be particularly lackluster. Jackson does little with his compositions to really take advantage of the 3D presentation other than add gratuitous dimensionality to some very busy shots that seem to have been composed for 2D. It pales in comparison to what Ang Li was able to do with the format in Life of Pi and in general it just seemed like an unneeded imposition on the iconic visual style of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I implore anyone who’s thinking of seeing the film to see it in regular old 24 FPS 2D, and it’s a shame that I’ve had to waste so much space talking about all this nonsense rather than the movie itself which has more than enough problems of its own.
I’m not going to waste time summarizing The Hobbit, which is one of the more famous fantasy novels of all time. I somewhat recall reading it when I was seven or eight, and do have some fond memories of it. Seeing adapted now I remember just how different a story it is. For one, the stakes are a lot lower in The Hobbit. Throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy there was a sense that the whole world depended on the mission at hand and that gave everything a whole lot of weight. You could tell that trilogy was written after the life or death conflict which was World War II, and by contrast The Hobbit feels more akin to a light-hearted African safari conducted by entitled colonials. It’s also got some really juvenile humor in it at times, particularly egregious is an early scene where the party of adventurers stumble upon a group of trolls and trick said troll into being turned to stone upon exposure to sunlight. The scene fails firstly because it’s predicated on a precarious fairytale login in which sunlight-allergic trolls will try to slow cook a group of dwarves that close to sunrise and secondly because it trades in “humorous” moments like a troll blowing his nose onto a person. Such material might have worked if this had being made to look like a light-hearted adventure distinct from The Lord of the Rings, but it doesn’t. Instead it adopts many of the decisions that were made for the original trilogy and which are largely unsuited to this very different story.
Many will cite the fact that this project was split into three installments as the main reason for its downfall, but I think that’s overly simplistic, the problems here run a lot deeper than that. However, the film’s padded nature is at least part of the problem. For instance, there were many people disappointed that the character of Tom Bombadil wasn’t included in even the extended cut of The Fellowship of the Ring, but Peter Jackson was right to leave him out, that chapter of the book did nothing to advance the plot and was incongruous to the tone of those films; it had no business in the movie. In this film Jackson not only fails to cut out a comparable character named Radagast, but actually expands the character’s role. That and other additions wouldn’t have been so awkward if Jackson had found a truly seamless way to integrate it, but instead he jams it into the narrative through stories told by characters that turn into strange flashbacks. On top of all that he fails to cut out such ephemera as the middle earth folk songs sung at certain intervals by the travelers and a cool looking but completely tangential encounter with a pair of rock giants.
What makes the film’s length particularly jarring is that Jackson never utilizes the extra time he’s given in order to better establish his characters. I can barely differentiate any of the thirteen dwarves that make up the quest party aside from Thorin, and even he is only noteworthy for being the band’s leader. By contrast, we felt a much closer kinship to the fellowship members in The Fellowship of the Ring and did so in significantly less time. Even Gandalf seems much less interesting than he did in the previous films and his powers seem increasingly dues ex machina-like in its ability to get the group out of any situation at the last minute. In retrospect I better understand why he was supposedly killed off in Fellowship, somewhat de-powered in Towers, and at least separated from the ring bearers in Return. Beyond that we get a lot of walk-on appearances by actors from the previous films like Ian Holme, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee, but all of these seem more like pandering cameos than legitimate additions to the story. Bilbo himself fares slightly better than his supporting players, and Martin Freeman gives the characters some degree of charm, but he’s still nowhere near as interesting as Frodo and he would have probably benefited great from the addition of a second hobbit companion along the lines of a Sam Gamgee.
Those who are more interested in seeing an effects driven action vehicle may or may not be more impressed than those looking for an epic adventure, but even in that department this generally feels second rate when compared to the original trilogy. Peter Jackson does occasionally bring a sly touch to the proceedings like a goblin king with a beard of blubber, and the film’s opening prologue/battle scene is at least conceptually sound. Otherwise the battles here seem overlong and a little cartoonish, almost like something you’d expect to see in a Pirates of the Caribbean film rather than a prestige action film from an A-list action director. To be fair, I might have enjoyed these scenes more if they hadn’t been in that ridiculous 48fps format, in fact that terrible presentation may have damped my experience with the entire film. Still, I feel like there’s no technical presentation in the world which can completely ruin a film that’s truly solid to begin with and ultimately it’s Peter Jackson’s own fault that the film was presented that way in the first place.
All in all, I think this film comes down to the same problem that every other franchise seems to run into when it concludes a main trilogy but then can’t help but find a way to keep going long after it had reached a logical conclusion. George Lucas waited fifteen and nineteen years respectively in order to make disappointing fourth installments to his Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises and if Peter Jackson did anything right in this whole ordeal it’s that he only waited nine years to do the same. That people weren’t eagerly anticipating this for decades is pretty much the only the only reason that this won’t be received with the same level of bile. Like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull before it, this doesn’t necessarily exude horribleness but it comes with a distinct whiff of the “why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?”
** out of Four