It has been nine years since last Middle-earth filled our cineplexes, and eleven years since Peter Jackson and writer and collaborator Fran Walsh first brought their vision of Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Whether you loved or just endured Jackson’s epic trilogy, it was a stunning accomplishment, and a thoroughly successful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels.
With that in mind, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could have felt like a visit from an old friend. Instead it’s an over-worked rehashing that focuses too much on technology and pizazz, and far too little on substance.
In the first of his previous Tolkien-based films, Jackson had a lengthy prologue or two to develop the backstory, and lots of slow plotting that made room for character development. Except for a short chase sequence and small skirmish at the end of the film, most of The Fellowship of the Ring is about establishing story and getting to know our main characters.
Conversely The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels detached, boring and rushed. Except for Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and one or two of the dwarves the characters are utterly flat and interchangeable. Even the head dwarf, Thorin (Richard Armitage), is not given the room to let his beard down. Instead he feels crowded out by the ceaseless commotion that surrounds him.
Adapting a novel for the screen takes a willingness to make drastic changes in order to translate the characters and the emotions surrounding their actions. Changes must be made, but the spirit, intent, and outcome should be maintained. Jackson and Walsh preserved most of the core content in Lord of the Rings while changing many of the details.
Thus far in The Hobbit Walsh and Jackson, along with Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro have changed a number of details, which also change the very nature of the situations and psychology of the characters. What could have been a tense and stealthy escape instead is transformed into a huge battle with less-than-inspiring results. It seems that they wanted to keep their audience engaged, but didn’t trust them to sit through a more methodical film.
It’s a baffling choice since two of the best films of the year, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, both lack a lot overt action without ever losing our attention.
The most infuriating of the character changes comes with Gandalf. Gone is the gravitas of his former cinematic self. He has been made into a silly frivolous character, which occasionally lights his fingers on fire. In an interview promoting Lord of the Rings, Jackson didn’t want Gandalf to shoot fireballs or do wizardy things. Instead he wanted Gandalf’s magic to be more about presence and influence.
Jackson must have changed his mind for The Hobbit, and the results are none too impressive.
Maybe it is just that Jackson and his collaborators turned what should have been one or two movies into three, and sacrificed their ability to streamline and focus on what is truly important within the story. Perhaps this was just a clever excuse to champion the new technology of high frame rate (HFR) cameras and projection, by giving people a film they have been talking about for almost a decade. Either way the film is dead on arrival.
As to high frame rate filmmaking, shooting at 48 frames per second (fps) then projecting digitally at 48 fps destroys any perceptible flicker that we often associate with watching a film. Jackson raves about the clarity of image, but often it looks like video projection, especially when the camera is moving quickly. Some of the slow or still shots are pretty to look at, but the crispness of the visuals makes the moving shots feel like a poorly calibrated virtual ride. 3D just complicates the problem further.
My big gripe is that I don’t feel that any of this is necessary, and would have preferred a good story that gave me an excuse to return to Tolkien’s fantasy world. Instead I got a flat story with uninteresting characters wrapped in an 3D HFR extravaganza that brought me to the edge of nausea.