Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Review!

     I finally visited Middle Earth again, and it's good to be there and I'll be back again for certain when the next chapters roll out in this new Hobbit trilogy. If the first Hobbit is any indication, fans of the Lord of the Rings, can truly look forward to another great trilogy from Peter Jackson and the good folks at Weta Digital & Weta Workshop! What was first planned as simply being two films, has since been expanded into a trilogy with the inclusion of other Middle Earth details from Tolkien's other books. Having only read 'The Lord of the Rings' books and not 'The Hobbit' I'm told that there are new inclusions that make for a better overall film, and certainly from what I've seen I agree, though I wouldn't have noted the difference. Many might feel the film's are being bloated to be over-long  with pointless added content simply to cash in on another trilogy. But if you, like me, own the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and love the additional details of Middle Earth's characters and lore, then such decisions by the film-makers will only sound more exciting to you! I never once felt the movie plodded along, nor did it ever feel slow. but I suppose hat depends on who you are and how much you care for the little things. I personally wish it was longer... and considering that even with the Hobbit's story stretched into a trilogy and each film being over 3 hours long, that there are still going to be extended editions released, I'll actually get my wish!

     Many are already familiar with the story, particularly given that it is a prequel of which many details were already covered conversationally in the Lord of the Rings, some of the new inclusions and interwoven new story details will be the surprises you can expect. But like the issue with most prequels, it's already a given how certain things will turn out or which characters will live through the day, that some of the tension is removed. Even certain magical moments that are intended to be surprising shall not be, owing to the fact that we are already familiar with them if we have watched the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

     Also coming off the high plateau that was 'The Return of the King', the Hobbit may be a disappointing follow-up in terms of the tension and stakes; which is to be expected, given the Hobbit's story doesn't take place in the dark atmosphere that prevailed the original LOTR trilogy and the threat of Sauron. It is a simpler affair in a much more peaceful time, though the foreshadowing of the darkness to come is indeed present. It would also be a bit unfair, given that 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is, like Fellowship of the Ring, Act 1 of a grander story that is sure to grow greater in scope as our band of dwarfs, a hobbit and a wizard make another journey towards another mountain with the intention of destroying a powerful dragon and restoring a lost people to their homeland.

     The story follows Frodo's uncle Bilbo Baggins who is tempted from his dull life to seek out the adventure he always sought when he was younger. He joins a wizards Gandalf and a troop of dwarfs led by their prince and the rightful king, Thorin, to recapture their fallen kingdom. As Bilbo deals with the terror of being a man out of his league amongst warriors in a dangerous quest in which he slowly comes to think of himself as being more of a burden than a help, the story also sheds light on Gandalf, a wizard who is also struggling with internal insecurities and worries, alongside Thorin, who is filled with pride and vengeance against the Dragon who took his home, and the Orcs who killed his father, and a hatred of the Elves who he felt betrayed by. Our first chapter in this trilogy gets the ball rolling on this quest as our heroes journey towards their destination, perhaps on a suicidal mission, while being pursued by Orcs intent on killing Thorin. While unbeknownst to them, a new dark power, the Necromaner, begins to stir somewhere in Middle Earth. With all of this involved, the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is off to a great start, filled with action, and delightful humor, and the magical wondrous spectacle of Middle Earth's settings and inhabitants. A journey well worth beginning!

     There is of course the oliphant in the room that should be discussed. And that's with regards to the film's format of being the first major film of its kind to be shot and presented at 48 frames per second, double the framerate of traditional film at 24 frames per second. What theatres are dubbing as 'HFR' for 'High Frame Rate.' I did indeed made it a point to go specifically to see the Hobbit in HFR 3-D. And if you in any way consider yourself an enthusiast of film and its development and progression, then I recommend viewing the film in HFR 3-D for yourself so you can judge it personally. As for my opinion about HFR, I'm pleased to say that I loved it overall and am very excited about seeing more of it in the future!

     However, I must first point out that the opening moments of the film are not the best way to introduce audiences to HFR... The Hobbit kicks off with a brief Middle Earth history of the dwarfs and the capture of their home and vast treasure by the dragon; very similar to how The Fellowship of the Ring opened with details about the War of Middle Earth and Sauron and the ring. At the Hobbit's start, we are given a lot of story, shown a lot of things, and with the combination of Peter Jackson's continuous cutting from one scene to the next, all with brief sweeping camera movements, and all at 48 frames per second, it feels like major information overload with no spot to settle down! So the start of the film will leave you a bit dizzy taking in all the details, from the story to the visuals that make ones introduction to HFR pretty jarring! Particularly noticeable are when quick movements made by characters, now shot in more frames and greater clarity, do resemble the dreaded 'TruMotion' settings on HDTVs where mathematical algorithms create movement and in-between frames that aren't actually there causing unnatural movement.While everything in the Hobbit is specifically shot in this framerate, and is not the guesswork of a computer, people will no doubt get that impression right from the start which I believe is what will drive the initial impression of HFR by most critics. The Hobbit and the HFR experience perhaps would have been better served were it to open up with more steady shots and a slower pace, allowing audiences to become more easily acclimatized to what they were seeing.

     But don't rule out HFR just yet! As the film goes on, it quickly finds it pace, slows down, steadies itself and so too does the HFR experience which will go on to deliver quite an amazing spectacle! All the visual annoyances with regard to the opening minutes of the film will vanish entirely. The first thing many will come to discover, even in the opening, is just how much more comfortable the 3-D experience is! Gone are the issues of blurry and poor 3-D sequences, the entire movie is comfortable to watch in 3-D right from the get-go, including during moments of quick action & fast cuts. This is the unanimous opinion of practically everyone who has seen it in this format. HFR is the way to go for more comfortable 3-D experiences, and anyone who has had problems with 3-D giving them headaches or being generally uncomfortable, might want to consider giving 3-D another try in HFR!

     I have not seen the film in 24 frames per second, but from what I'm told, those who've seen both versions find it hard to go back to seeing the 24 fps version and vastly prefer the 48 fps version after now having witnessed how vastly superior the 48 fps experience is in detail, clarity and presentation. Frankly you can tell from the outset that things are more vibrant and where the detailed clarity truly makes it feel as if you are really there in Bag End, or in Bilbo's home, or walking through the forests and caverns of Middle Earth! It's that much more immersive! I've heard detractors claim that things look cheap or that they look like home video, or documentary footage. But this was not at all my impression! Nothing about the Hobbit felt cheap or artificially lit, nor even poorly lit for that matter. It is a quality film with quality sets and production that greatly exceeds your average television experience, and the outdoor scenes truly come alive! Everything feels 'brighter', though that is attributable to the improved details and that's a very beneficial thing! Heck, even traditional slow-motion sequences are much smoother and significantly better! And who doesn't love seeing those vast mountains of gold objects and coins clattering down in greater greedy details?!

     There are of course some moments where one can spot obvious effects issues with regards to telling physical sets apart from matte background plates and a few other small occasions here and there... But this is not an issue with the HFR format, and more to do with shoddy effects. As amazing a studio as Weta is, even the best VFX artists will run out of steam having to rush out and deliver shots on deadline every year with the rushed development schedule they have. And The LOTR films have never always been that convincing in some areas of the animation department either with regards to CG Legolas or whenever soldier's bodies are flying through the air, and sad to say, such similar effects work is also present in the Hobbit. So I'd like to point these things out because I've noted some critics and viewers are placing the blame for VFX issues on the HFR format, and that's simply not the case. Anyway, such notable FX issues are very minimal. The vast majority of the time you won't notice anything wrong, and there are many amazing action spectacles in store; notably battle scenes, and the entire climactic sequence of the dwarfs and Gandalf fighting hordes of goblins in the caves which is literally amazing from start to finish in HFR 3-D!

     So for my final recommendation, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is a must-see for fans of Lord of the Rings, and a promising start of a great journey for everyone else to look forward to! If you can, I highly, HIGHLY, recommend watching the film in HFR 3-D, providing a theatre near you supports the format! Enjoy what could be the start of a new era of big budget films at 48 fps! From the 48 fps scenery! The 48 fps elvish women! The 48 fps battle scenes and fight sequences! Right down to the 48 fps credits & 48 fps music by Howard Shore! We also have new art books in store for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, including the Hobbit graphic novel, which are sure to have at least 48 pages of detailed art in them!