Liking The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is all about expectations. So let’s get this out of the way right at the top: The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings.

It’s popular to say that The Hobbit is a prequel to LotR, and while this is technically correct (and the film emphasizes this point) the two are tonally very different. The book The Hobbit was actually written first, and originated as a bedtime story Tolkien told his kids. So it makes sense that The Hobbit will showcase significantly more imaginative fancy than the grimmer LotR.

The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo Baggins, Frodo’s uncle, and is for all intents and purposes the story of how he became the quirky old hobbit we see in LotR. On the way is the story of how Bilbo came to possess Sauron’s One Ring, but this is really secondary to Bilbo’s tale of self-discovery. And I think “tale” is really the right word for what The Hobbit is. It’s a lighthearted romp meant as equal parts history and myth. So when twelve burly dwarves acrobatically wash Bilbo’s finest china without breaking a dish, it’s charming, not immersion-breaking.

So I say again: The Hobbit IS NOT The Lord of the Rings.

This film is full of as much childhood whimsy as it is serious questing, and this permeates everything from story to visual design. It borders on the ridiculous, sure, but there are only a couple point that it pushes this sense to far.

In reflecting upon my experience of the film, I’ve thought a lot of a stage production of Peter Pan I saw a couple years ago. The production took place in a very intimate theater space where the audience lined three of the four walls in a “U” shape and the action took place out in the middle. It utilized minimal sets, and the ropes used to make the characters “fly” were clearly visible, along with the cast members in the corners hoisting them aloft. But it all worked because from the start the production invited the audience to make believe with them, to imagine and play as a child might, just as the book suggests. The Hobbit works in much the same vein. You can’t take everything with absolute seriousness because it’s not meant to be taken that way. The movie is framed by an older Bilbo writing down his tale. Some of it might be embellished. As I mentioned, this permeates the film. Nothing is ever true caricature, but at times it shows that influence, as with the dwarves’ appearances. The Hobbit is a fun film, and it invites you to have fun with it.

A major complaint I’ve heard leveled against the film is that it is too long. I have to admit, when I heard that the book as being stretched into not just two films but three I was very worried. And while it remains to be seen how the second and third films are paced, I distinctly enjoyed the methodical pace of the first. As I saw it, it was just another element that fit with the tone and style of the film. Getting lost for half an hour on something of a tangent? Why not? If it’s an interesting story to tell, let’s tell it! It’s an atypical choice to be sure, particularly given the measured and compact nature of film as a medium, but it works for this film. So fear not, and once again, sit back, relax, and enjoy.

 

The Verdict: 5 out of 5

I loved this film. It’s a beautiful, colorful tale full of wonder and excitement that takes you back to days of sitting under the covers while you mom or dad read you a fantastic story that was just simply fun, one that you never wanted to end. There are a couple moments that overdo this to the point of ridiculousness, but these missteps are few and far between; for the most part, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey flat nails the tone it’s going for. It’s refreshing that Peter Jackson wasn’t afraid to take some risks after the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films, and they almost exclusively paid off. It’s important that you approach The Hobbit as its own film, but if you don’t bring in your own preconceived notions of what it should be and allow it to carry you where it will, The Hobbit will take you on one hell of a ride.

 

***ADDENDUM – REGARDING THE HIGH FRAME RATE***

This was the one aspect of The Hobbit that I almost completely disliked. It may well be that my eyes are just too used to 24 frames per second, but the 48 fps looked weird. The two (and a half) exceptions to this rule:

  1. The high frame rate is exclusively used in 3D showings of The Hobbit, and it does significantly reduce motion blur in 3D. I remember seeing a 3D trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a little while back and not being able to see a damn thing the entire trailer. But even when the action gets hairy in The Hobbit it looks smooth.
  2. For some of the big, sweeping vista shots (for the Shire, Rivendell, and elsewhere) the high frame rate was absolutely gorgeous. It let you see everything in exquisite detail.

2 ½ .  In any of the scenes that did not involve high action (i.e. characters just walking, talking, etc. and not fighting or running) I do believe that my aversion to the high frame rate was largely based on the fact that my eye was simply not used to it. It did lead to an interesting phenomenon, however: I was far more cognizant of actors’ little movements, as well as their lack thereof, than I have ever been in another movie. The high frame rate seemed to draw attention to what the actors were doing with their bodies. Sometimes it what they did looked very natural. Sometimes it looks like they were waving their hands around like lunatics. If 48 frames become very common at all, I think we’re likely to see a whole new wave of scrutiny when it comes to the acting quality of on-screen performers.

With that considered, however, I still detested the high frame rate for one reason if for no other: In moments of high/fast action (of which there were plenty) it literally made the characters look as though their actions had been sped up in post-production. Bilbo at times looked as though he were moving in fast forward. It went beyond anything that could be excused as stylization (and believe me, I tried to excuse it) and was truly immersion breaking.

I will report that a friend of mine who is a cinematographer loved the high frame rate, but as for me, this is where I stand on the format: in 3D it’s probably better to have it than to not, particularly in a film like The Hobbit, because of the way it reduces motion blur, but I’d rather see the film in 2D at a normal frame rate because, as has been documented in this very blog, I’m not much of a fan of 3D to begin with (although there were a couple of nice 3D shots in The Hobbit).

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