Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that there’s a new movie out called The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The prequel to Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy is finally upon us. The word critic-proof is aptly applied when it comes to a film like this, but alas, with Jackson’s films, even critics understand how fantastic they are. The bigger question is, with so many different release platforms – 2D, 3D, IMAX 3D, HFR (High Frame Rate) 3D, not to mention all the different sound systems including Jackson’s preferred new Dolby ATMOS – how does one choose to see it? Is there one version to rule them all?
The first installment of Jackson’s three-part Hobbit adaptation stretches out the first 100 pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel to 166 minutes. With the book having been originally published in 1937, you would hope you wouldn’t run into spoilers, but since I am reading it for the first time, I figured there would be a few. An opening prologue shows us the attack of the dragon Smaug upon the Lonely Mountain ruled by Thror (Jeffrey Thomas). It’s the discovery of the “heart of the mountain” that drives Smaug’s attack and all the dwarves are forced to leave after the Orcs kill Thror’s son Thrain (Michael Mizrahi) in battle.
Next, we pick up right before Fellowship of the Ring began. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is readying his place in case of visitors for his big birthday celebration, hiding anything of value out of sight. Frodo (Elijah Wood) is understandably confused. Bilbo is also hard at work on writing down his own adventures to paper which flashbacks to 60 years earlier when Bilbo is called up by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to share in an adventure with him. The adventure includes 13 dwarves–Balin (Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt), Bombur (Stephen Hunter), Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), Oin (John Callen), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), Nori (Jed Brophy), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Ori (Adam Brown), all lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage) son of Thrain. Bilbo is called upon to fulfill the burglar duties as they set out to rid the Lonely Mountains of Smaug and take back their rightful home.
The film as a whole is fantastic of course. Jackson (along with co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) rearranges, combines and alters the book’s events to provide a far more cinematic experience, as he did with the Lord of the Rings. Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) the Brown Wizard even shows up. Everyone in the cast is at the top of their game as one would expect in a film of this caliber. And of course, the special effects are even better than when Fellowship was released nine years ago. The Lord of the Rings films may have never won any technical awards (insert guffaws here), but there’s no doubt The Hobbit should clean up nicely.
Just about the only thing left to really discuss now is how to go about deciding your viewing experience. Having seen The Hobbit in 48fps HFR (unfortunately not in an ATMOS equipped theater), I think you’re pretty much free to pick your own poison. If you want it to feel more at home with the original series then you may just want to stick with 2D. However, if you want the film to stand up to how Jackson has made it, then you may want to seek out a theater near you that can play HFR. The film itself is as amazing as you’d expect, but what does the higher frame rate really bring to the table?
Having the ability to use TruMotion (to reduce motion blur) at home, I can tell you that it’s far better than anything produced on a home television. However, there are many times the frame rate seems totally unnecessary and makes things feel as if you’ve accidentally turned your PS3 on 1.5 speed. Ironically, HFR is supposed to reduce judder and smooth out the picture to make it easier on the eyes and provide far more clarity than the industry standard 24fps. Instead it creates the exact opposite with a jittery effect. If it’s not an action scene or sweeping vista, it seems like the film is visually sped up.
When The Hobbit opens up to wide shots full of landscapes, including the entire second unit work, it’s far easier to handle the HFR. But when people are just standing around talking or walking from one room to the next, they almost look like their skipping about. It also comes into full effect whenever there are moments of slow motion, filling the screen with far more detail than you’ve ever seen. Perhaps therein lies the biggest problem is that the higher frame rate is producing too much detail to take in at once. A film of this scale already has so much to take in that the HFR just turns it into a visual overdose. So finally, regardless of how one finally decides to indulge, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may not be the year’s single best film, but it still stands as one of the best.
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