Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (and the HFR format)

The Hobbit

The Story…

One day, out of the blue, the young hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is visited by the wise wizard, Gandalf The Grey, who, for reasons of his own, decides that the hobbit would make the perfect thief to add to a gang of dwarves who are on a mission to confront the dragon Smaug and reclaim what he has stolen from the dwarf people. Reluctantly the hobbit joins the merry band and begins a series of great adventures, which includes crossing paths with ogres, orcs and mountain giants and may have far deeper ramifications than anyone could predict.

 

The review…

Even as it was being released The Lord of the Rings was considered by many to be a contemporary classic of the cinematic medium, breaking ground on narrative structure, production scale and visual FX. Time has proven the series a legitimate classic, time and again making other literary based franchises such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series’ seem rather puerile by comparison. The fact that the extended versions of the films have made for the greatest DVD packages ever put together is simply the cherry on the cake of general excellence surrounding the beloved franchise.

It was inevitable that The Lord of the Rings’ literary forerunner, The Hobbit, would eventually be adapted for cinema, and despite many pre-production issues, too numerous to mention here, it has finally arrived, with The Lord of the Rings maestro, Peter Jackson, at its helm. But with such a huge shadow cast by TLOTR and a movie industry that has caught up with it in scale, not to mention a story that is more directly aimed at children, what could The Hobbit do to separate itself from the crowd?

The hobbit 2Well, the solution in the minds of the people involved was to create a new format for its shooting and presentation, beyond the 3D format, to heighten to viewing experience. This new format is called HFR, or High Frame Rate, and its intention is to present the cleanest and most detailed images ever viewed on the cinema.

First a quick lesson for those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of shooting films (and projecting it). Different territories of the world shoot film (or its digital equivalent) at different speeds, that is to say, the number of frames that capture images within the camera, per second. Traditionally the standard was around 24 to 25 frames per second or thereabouts, but with the above stated aims in mind The Hobbit was shot at twice that frame rate. It must be said that more cinemas aren’t equipped to project this new format than are, so the review of the format that follows will hold no relevance to many, but those who are going out of their way to experience this new era of cinema, take heed.

Early word was that the style didn’t work well and gave the film the cheap quality of a 1970’s shot BBC drama, which at the time I personally wrote off as vague and cynical, but having viewed the results for myself, must admit that it’s not a million miles from the truth; but why?

The blame lies with our own perception, basic flaws in the format and the coupling of HFR with 3D. The perception thing works on two fronts, the first being that we’re just not used to seeing rapid movement without a motion blur, it detracts from that sheen of what we see to be filmic, that imperceptible haze we like to see film through to heighten it from reality; this is not a major deal and I’m sure with time we could get past it.

What would be harder to get past is the sense of detail that on a near subconscious level separates all the different elements of the shots. We’ve seen nice, crispy images on HD projected films and Blu-ray, this one step further tipped the balance and made it evident that one can easily tell the difference between which scenes were shot with natural light and which with artificial, which were true exteriors compared with sets and CG backdrops, with not only the CG elements sticking out like a saw thumb but also the divide from what is in focus and what isn’t, giving a general sense that what your seeing FEELS like it was shot either on an easily noticeable set or in front of some epic rear-screen projection.

An innate problem with the HFR process is that when movement becomes jerky or especially quick the image takes on slightly silly characteristics from the silent film era. You remember how Chaplin kind of waddled away like a penguin, his too quick movements a little at odds with gravity? That happens plenty in The Hobbit, spoiling many an action scene.

Add to this the fact that the 3D process does its usual bang up job of taking anything that should seem huge in scale and somehow making it feel like a small model being held really close to your face, and all in all you have a product that feels anything BUT epic, a product in which all the separate elements making themselves obvious renders it nearly impossible to just follow the story without distraction.

I’ve subsequently spoken with people who’ve seen this format and not gone away with the same impression as myself, which, though baffling, begs the questions: are some cinemas purporting to be screening in HFR but actually not? Are some cinemas somehow not projecting it correctly? Are these issues only noticeable to a keep eye? Or are people able to perceive this format differently? I couldn’t possibly say, and can only judge from my own experience.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Okay, so the format is detrimental to the film, but what about the film itself? Well, there’s no getting around the fact that, like the lead characters, the story is much smaller, in both length and scale than TLOTR; there’s not as much at stake yet there are more characters to deal with.

What this means is that not only does less have to be removed from the source material but more can actually be added to bridge the gap between what will eventually be two franchises in one saga. All this must surly be a positive to fans of the source material and it certainly weaves a rich, fun, pacey tapestry, but people just looking for entertaining piece of cinema may find it a little episodic with sections that add nothing of narrative or consequential value, that as part of any other production would have seen the cutting room floor.

I personally happen to enjoy the depths of storytelling and world building here presented; mountain giants throwing boulders at each other might not add anything to the story, but it’s cool to see. A scene containing Gandalf, Sauron, Galadriel and Elrond, very obviously tying the fate of this quest to larger issues at play in Middle Earth in the hopes of adding gravitas to the proceedings, though fabricated for the production is actually one of the more intriguing elements of the film and acts as a welcome respite from the fairly linier adventure.

Everything else is as excellent as you’d hope it would be. The make-up, props, sets, creatures and action are all designed wonderfully, and it’s nice to see that some of the designs okayed during Guillermo Del Toro’s time as project director have remained. I defy anyone to say that The Pale Orc isn’t Del Toro through and through. The characters (and actors portraying them) are charming and likable, extracting from the script scenes that are rousing and moving but with a light touch being retained throughout so as not to totally separate the material from its child fiction roots.

The final product, on it’s own merits, is a good, solid and fun fantasy adventure story that should be enjoyed by all fans of TLOTR, especially those who understand its place in comparison to it. Cinema in general has caught up with the dizzying example set by The Hobbit’s predecessor, so it doesn’t stand out as much and won’t be held in as high regard, but I for one look forward to the continuing films. The HFR format however ONLY detracts and distracts; an expensive failed experiment that will hopefully be dropped before the next instalment.

 

Conclusion (on the film’s own merits)…

B grade – for originality

B grade – for storytelling

A+ grade – for visuals

B+ grade – for acting

A grade – for action

Overall grade – B+

Richard
A UK based Contributor; Richard Reynolds splits his time writing articles and interviews for Fanboy Confidential with running his own comicbook shop, Ground Zero Comics, as well as sticking his thumb in far too many pies, including illustration, writing and filmmaking, he also consumes fiction in all its forms like its going out of fashion.

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