The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I decided to catch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (hereafter referred to as An Unexpected Journey) on New Year’s Eve, because it sure as hell beats going to the City to watch a waste of a few million dollars in a pathetic attempt to wow with fireworks. I saw it in HFR, and kind of unfortunately in 3D as well, as it turns out the only way to watch the film in HFR was to watch it in 3D. I think I will take a sentence or two to talk about things that were floating around in my head with regards to 3D movies and why I feel they don’t really work in terms of immersion as much as 2D.

Now, I have read The Hobbit, unlike the 6 (yes, 6) LOTR books. Due to this, I went into An Unexpected Journey with a bit of concern about how enjoyable I would find the movie. It is a rule of thumb that if I experience the original media of anything first, I will generally dislike adaptations. I kind of found An Unexpected Journey disappointing for reasons other than having read it before, as there was a fair bit of additional information dumped into the movie from supplementary material.

The film itself was tonally inconsistent, most likely a consequence of drawing from multiple sources in order to stretch this venture into a trilogy. The parts lifted directly from The Hobbit were the ones I enjoyed the most. They felt like something out of a bedtime story, which is how I felt reading the book. At other times, the film is trying for a grander, more serious tone that the material does not warrant at all. It felt like a scared animal puffing itself up to appear bigger and more imposing than it really is.

Needless to say, there were pacing issues. We leave certain characters to focus on others, in much the same way the book did, but with additional information on screen taken from supplementary material. Certain scenes felt they went on too long, while others seemed a little glossed over. I am not sure whether removing some of the supplementary scenes would have helped with the pacing, though it felt like there was simultaneously too much going on and that there was too thin of a narrative to warrant the run time.

Performances were pretty good around the board, though there were too many characters to keep track of and too little time spent developing them for audiences to really connect with many of them. In fact, you don’t really get introduced to all of them by name in the first act, like you did in the novel, making things a little more complicated. Credit where it’s due, each Dwarf has a distinct look about him and the movie has amazing production design. For such a simple and thin narrative, the film offers more variety in terms of locals than Fellowship did.

Then there were the digital performances, and they were pretty spectacular. CG creations have much more detail in them and as such are able to emote to a much more convincing degree, especially Gollum (already a high water mark in cinematic digital performances in the LOTR films).

Truth be told, I went to see An Unexpected Journey for the HFR experience, and not because it was An Unexpected Journey. In the end, HFR is an interesting experience that is not without its own set of problems. Firstly, everything is super clear due to the increased Frame Rate. It really is quite amazing, though it does feel at times like you are watching a really well lit and highly budgeted TV show from time to time. The increased detail is not without its problems either. Prosthetics used in makeup do not stand up well with the increased clarity. Changes in skin tone from the actor’s real face to his prosthetic nose, or forehead can get a little distracting from time to time, reminding you that you are only watching a movie. Additionally, certain actions felt like they were being sped up. It felt unnatural and once again removed from the immersion that the movie needed. Finally, some CG elements did not feel as well integrated into the live action footage at the higher frame rate. An early Warg chase appeared as stunning nature photography with CG Wargs superimposed without much care. I hope things like this can be rectified in the future.

Now those sentences regarding 3D. Well, I noticed a couple of things with 3D. It gives you a sense of depth that 2D films do not, however, it dictated which “level” of the image you are focusing on. To illustrate, Say there is the background, the midground which contains the actor you need to focus on, and the foreground that has incidental scenery in it. The shot will be composed and focused such that in a 2D film, your focus is on the actor, the foreground elements will be out of focus and the background will be out of focus. In a 3D film, much the same happens, however the foreground elements are much “closer” to you and remain out of focus, and I generally find I want to be able to bring those into focus to find out what they are, even if just for a second. The inability to do so, while being “tricked” into thinking I should be able to because the shot appears 3D kind of removes me from the movie.

Additionally, 3D kind of made green screened establishing shots look more shallow than they should have if what was shown on the green screen were actually there with the rest of the world. To explain, it feels kind of weird to have the actors walk to the edge of a cliff, see that they have some depth to them, along with the surrounding environment, but the city they are looking down upon looks kind of flat.

Kind of makes you feel like, oh these are people standing on a set looking at something that was added in later. Once again, this lowers immersion in the film world.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the 3D and HFR went together from time to time. At times, particularly in the darker scenes, it felt like you were watching actors on a stage, rather than a movie. The technology is interesting and I would like to see it, and other film making technologies (particularly makeup) improve with time.

Ultimately, An Unexpected Journey is an interesting experience if you are looking into High Frame Rate technology, much like Avatar was interesting if you were curious about the brand new 3D cameras used to film it. It is stronger as a curiosity than it does as a film in its own right.

If you haven’t already, read the book. Depending on your reading speed, it will take you less time to get through the book than it will to get through all three movies, and you will likely be left feeling more satisfied, if this film were any indication.

An Unexpected Journey is kind of revealing something about Peter Jackson that I previously did not want to acknowledge. He is not a master of tone. The Lord of the Rings felt more tonally consistent because the source material was richer and more serious. The true horror of the ring and the impending rise of all powerful evil could be played up for all it was worth, hiding some of the shortcomings in actually managing narrative tone.

With An Unexpected Journey, Jackson does not have as rich of a narrative to hide behind and his inability to blend tones together into a consistent whole, or even into one that smoothly transitions from joviality to seriousness to horror is all the more evident.

Jackson is a man who can make fantastical worlds come to life visually, and that is something I truly appreciate about his work, but his handling of narrative and emotional material needs a little work.

If I absolutely have to give An Unexpected Journey a rating out of 10, I’d say 6 out of 10. It has its wonderful moments and the tech is an experience worth experiencing, but as an actual film, it isn’t as strong as it should or could have been.