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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Bore

by Trey Hock on December 14, 2012

in Print Reviews,Reviews

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.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonio December 14, 2012 at 9:01 am

This is disappointing to read. Was not at all that excited about 48fps tech used for this, and it’s a shame that it really is as terrible for others as I imagined. Perhaps I will wait to view this on blu ray at 24fps. The only other reason I kind of wanted to see this was for the supposed trailer for the new Star Trek, but even the brief online teaser makes that seem like it’s going to be “War of Transformer-Trek-like” than anything resembling Roddenberry’s vision.

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2 Trey Hock December 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Antonio,

You should probably check it out just to see it firsthand. I don’t know that I hated the 48fps, but I don’t see the need for it.

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3 warren-j December 14, 2012 at 9:12 am

Ahhh! I feel like mommy and daddy are fighting, and I need to take a side. Rest assured, my forthcoming opinion will get the family therapist involved…

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4 Trey Hock December 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm

I’m daddy, right?

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5 Steve Dave December 14, 2012 at 12:03 pm

OR Antonio, you could make your own decision about a movie instead of relying on a critic.

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6 Trey Hock December 14, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I think that is exactly what Antonio is doing and why Scene Stealers offers two different reviews!

Have you seen it yet, Steve? What were your thoughts?

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7 warren-j December 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Man, I went in to the thing wanting to like it, wanting to just shrug off the 48 FPC, but I’ll be honest, the visual look of the film brought me out of the narrative, which is challenging in and of itself. I think that if a filmmaker is going to make a picture about dwarves, wizards, and goblins, they shouldn’t further challenge a viewer’s reality compass by shooting the thing to look like an early-90′s Mexican soap opera. I liked the characters, enjoyed the story, yet felt bogged down by the pacing, which wasn’t helped by a visual look that refused to let me get drawn into the thing. (And OF COURSE you’re daddy, Trey!)

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8 Trey Hock December 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I agree, Warren. I was into the LOTR trilogy, and wanted to like The Hobbit, but there was too much wrong with it for me to get invested. Really disappointing.

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9 Xavier December 17, 2012 at 10:37 pm

was it a bit of a Public Enemies problem, where it shows the actors, costumes and make up in such raw detail that you just keep thinking of people running around on sets in costumes, rather than characters in a world?

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