Wednesday, December 19, 2012


(US/New Zealand - 2012)

Directed by Peter Jackson.  Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro.  Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Barry Humphries, Manu Bennett, Lee Pace, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown. (PG-13, 170 mins)

Other than greed, hubris, and self-indulgence, is there really any need for J.R.R. Tolkien's 300-page book to take three three-hour movies to play out?  After a long pre-production delayed by lawsuits and MGM financial issues, and a change in director from Guillermo del Toro to Peter Jackson, the eagerly-awaited prequel to Jackson's landmark LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is finally here, and not without controversy.  Jackson initially planned THE HOBBIT as a two-part film, but it was expanded into a trilogy of its own.  If this first installment is any indication, there's definitely a sense of bloat and overkill, especially in the way Jackson brings in elements that weren't in Tolkien's book (incorporating some material from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, including most of the backstory for the eccentrically disheveled wizard Radagast the Brown, played by former DOCTOR WHO Sylvester McCoy) as a way of giving what was a smaller-scaled, significantly less epic-feeling tale the same heft and spectacle of the original trilogy.  The 1977 animated, Rankin-Bass produced TV-movie of THE HOBBIT managed to get the story across in about 80 minutes.  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY has assorted detours, asides, and completely new elements that aren't entirely necessary (and it's in higher-priced 3D) and really only seem to be there as a way to get as much money out of moviegoers as possible.

The bigger story, at least in the select theaters that are presenting it this particular way, is Jackson's decision to shoot the film in the High Frame Rate of 48 fps (frames per second) instead of the industry-standard 24 fps.  The HFR 3D version is playing on less than 500 screens in the US, but it does represent Jackson's preferred vision of the film.  While you get used to it as the film progresses, it's initially very jarring and disorienting.  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY looks traditionally "cinematic" maybe 15% of the time, usually in close-ups of certain cast members (Ian McKellen as Gandalf seems to have the least CGI enhancement of the cast).  The rest of the film has an overwhelmingly artificial look to its ultra-HD appearance.  The high frame rate brings out every minute detail (you can clearly see the line of the prosthetic footgear worn by the actors playing Hobbits), and it gives most of the epic action and battle scenes an annoyingly video-gamey look that's nothing less than a total distraction.  Elsewhere, many scenes look almost entirely CGI animated.  The interiors fare the worst of all, with the film having a completely stage-bound, soap-opera look that resembles a remastered version of a shot-on-video PBS or BBC TV production from the 1980s.  Walk in on a scene of people talking indoors and it could pass for a filmed version of a HOBBIT stage performance.  And in these interior scenes the high frame rate gives the actors a jerky, sped-up movement that frequently resembles something being slightly fast-forwarded.  When it comes to anything LORD OF THE RINGS, Jackson wields enough power that he can do anything he wants, and like George Lucas, is likely surrounded by yes-men who are happy to indulge him as long as the money keeps rolling in.  I imagine the traditional 24 fps version (also in 3D and regular screenings) plays better, or at least more "cinematically," but Jackson's 48 fps experiment really only works in the shots of the stunning natural terrain of New Zealand's hills and mountains.  In these all-too-brief scenes, the film takes on an almost PLANET EARTH quality that's a beautiful sight to behold.

Having said all that...I did find AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY generally enjoyable, at least from the standpoint of the story and the performances.  Martin Freeman makes a likably fussy young Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm again plays the aged Bilbo in a framing sequence with Elijah Wood as Frodo), it's great to see McKellen play Gandalf once again, and a mere decade in technological advancements have made Andy Serkis' motion-capture Gollum even more expressive and lifelike.  The film's strongest performance comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, leader of a band of Dwarf warriors who adopt a reluctant Bilbo to help them reclaim their home on Lonely Mountain, lost 60 years earlier when the dragon Smaug took it as his own, forcing them to live as marauding outcasts.  The camaraderie of Thorin and his cohorts with Gandalf and Bilbo, and the ways Bilbo proves his worth and earns their respect are the kinds of things that are hard to bungle, and, as in the original trilogy, it's in these rousing and emotional scenes that AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY finds its true strengths. 

Christopher Lee (as Saruman), Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel), and Hugo Weaving (as Elrond) briefly reappear from the original trilogy.  The elderly cast members, like 90-year-old Lee and 81-year-old Holm, have some very noticeable CGI retouching done to their faces, as they're a decade older but playing younger, and they have a waxy, glossy, artificial appearance that looks a lot like extensive noise reduction on a Blu-ray.  This is likely due more to the use of 48 fps, which just represents another issue with the format.  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY might visually play better on Blu-ray, but I think I've seen enough of Jackson's love of the high frame rate to go with the standard 24 fps version when THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG hits theaters in December 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment