Bragging rights: it's now the evening of the day of the release of the first Hobbit movie, and I've seen the movie twice already. I cheated - I somehow managed to get red-carpet tickets last week and watched it in 24fps already. Last night though (or more accurately, early early this morning at 12:01am), I watched The Hobbit 1 - An Unexpected Journey in (almost) all it's glory - 3D, 48fps, and ATMOS sound system, at the theatre where it opened last week, the Embassy Cinema in Wellington (the only technical format missing was IMAX, which isn't available in Wellington).
Before I start my review though, I should point out a few biases of mine - a full disclosure, if you like. On the Tolkien front, I read the Hobbit when I was a teenager. Personally, I don't mind a few changes from one medium to another. The LOTR movies deviated from the books in significant ways, and I, for one, am glad of them. I actually hope The Hobbit movie will be different from the books as well, in more than a few places.
To film a book exactly like a movie will always be impossible, and so film makers are faced with either making a movie closer to the book (and upset movie fans), or making a better movie (and upsetting book fans). Given the choice, I'd far rather see a better movie than a faithful movie. I don't particularly have any problem reading a book after seeing a movie, and seeing where the movie came from.
Now, I say that as one of the founding members of this New Zealand Tolkien fellowship. Some changes are warranted. That doesn't mean that I think the professor was wrong, just that he wasn't a script writer.
Next admission - I hate 3D movies. If you've been paying attention to my NZ Noldor blog over the years, this shouldn't come as a shock. I have yet to see a 3D movie where the 3D aspects of it weren't just designed to try and impress me. I'm totally fed up with the old "throw stuff at the camera, that will be cool" school of 3D movies. In the opening scenes from Avatar 3D, it was very quickly obvious that the setting of the movie was designed to show off the awesome effects, and James Cameron lost me as a fan the moment that 3D blob of water was floating in mid-space. It was a cool effect, sure, but how was that part of any story?
On a related note, I walked out of Avatar with the biggest headache I've had in the last 10 years. I don't think that's an overstatement, either. It wasn't particularly entertaining, and I haven't watched Avatar again since the first time (on yet another unrelated note, I have since watched Fern Gully again).
Ok, that all said, let me start by stating that I LOVED this movie. I used to judge how good a movie was by what was in it - I don't do that anymore. I prefer to judge it by how it makes me feel. The Hobbit had me sitting there mesmerised by the beauty of the landscapes, even as the film's story danced around the one in the book. Tolkien's Hobbit book was never more than a children's story, and as such skimmed over or even skipped entire events that must reasonably have happened. The book works as a children's book, precisely because of that. Some of the book's sections are silly and whimsical and fun, and would have made the movie unbelievable.
In the first chapter of the book, we are told that the thirteen dwarves show up to Bilbo's door. This troupe of dwarves have apparently lost all their belongings, and are now wandering around Middle-earth in search of a good burglar. Their temporary home is far away, and their quest will bring them across many miles of wildlands, woodlands, rivers, and mountains. Are we seriously expected to believe that they would bring an orchestra's worth of musical intruments to this great trek? Two fiddles, three flutes, a drum, two clarinets, two viols "as big as [Dwalin and Balin] themselves", while Thorin himself apparently goes to war carrying a golden harp. The Misty Mountains song in the book isn't set to specific music, but what Howard Shore has done with it, had the hairs in my neck stand on end. No instruments were used in the movie but it worked much better.
Other things were also removed - the talking purse belonging to one of the trolls for instance. I had hopes that their names would also be changed from the uber-english Bert, William and Tom, but Peter Jackson has made it work, by giving them uber-english villain characters, even more so than Tolkien himself did. It may be cliched but it works. The problem of three big, noisy, bumbling trolls somehow sneaking up on 13 cautious and suspicious dwarves has been resolved by taking the problem seriously, something Tolkien didn't have to do in the child's book.
Throughout the movie, there are extra incidents and other seemingly superfluous additions to the book's plot, all designed to bring the Hobbit movie into line with LOTR. I think it will give the final series, once completed, a more coherent feel, which is totally lacking in the reading of LOTR after reading The Hobbit.
I won't go into the plot details too much, to avoid too many possible spoilers, but overall I have to say I was thoroughly entertained by the story, and also by how much extra story I was being told. A lot of this story is straight from Tolkien's other works, with some embellishments and dramatisations.
I predict that Peter Jackson's Hobbit will work precisely because of this. His inventions are relatively minor, but he manages to do what Tolkien never finished - to create a version of the Bilbo's story aimed squarely at an older audience.
I briefly wanted to mention the new technologies behind the story. I mentioned my dislike of 3D as a story-telling tool. So far I've not seen any movie that has used it as a secondary device after "plot". There have been many other 3D movies, and although I've not seen most of them, none appear to have resisted the urge to simply throw stuff at the audience. Peter Jackson tells us a good story first and foremost, and uses 3D as one of many different tools. The 3D I saw last night was subtle in some places and understated impressive in others. The 3D rain was a thing of beauty - it made all other movie rain seem fake. The rain was all around the characters, and it felt more real than anything I've seen before.
One other nice 3D device was the subtitles - when more than one character was speaking in non-english, the subtitles were brought back further depending on who had been speaking. This worked so intuitively that nobody I spoke to had even noticed it.
The other new thing of course, is the higher frame rate of 48 frames per second. To achieve this, the Embassy has had new projectors installed a few weeks ago, capable of brighter projections, and at higher framerates. Obviously a huge screen like the one at the Embassy needs a fair amount of energy to get the best results, and last night the movie was hair-sharp, and incredibly easy on my eyes at least.
One previous issue I had about 3D movies is the level of darkness. Essentially, you're sitting in a dark room with sunglasses on. This can cause eye-strain, which in my case has lead to massive headaches. However, with the new brighter projection at twice the framerates, coupled with what seemed to me to be lighter shaded glasses, this appears to have been solved. I watched the movie last night at 48fps, and I felt I could easily have watched it again straight away, with no ill effects.
The common complaint I keep reading online about the 48fps is that it looks "too real". I can't quite understand this - how can this possibly be a bad thing? Yes, it looked "realer" than anything I've ever seen on a big screen, and I loved it! Surely that's the point of going to the cinema? If I had to make a prediction, I'd say that 48fps is here to stay. We will all get used to it, and in ten years time we won't be worrying about frame rates, motion blurs, and other problems long-since solved and forgotten.
Having seen the Hobbit in both 24fps and 48fps formats, I can confirm that the higher fps was far easier on the eye, especially in the panning landscape scenes, and the fast chase sequences. During the Goblin Mines sequence it was far easier to get a sense of what was happening, and I had a better chance to look around the huge caverns and see more detail. As Peter Jackson is so fond of reassuring us, 48fps is a more submersive technology - it really takes you down there as an active participant, something which I did not expect to happen but did.
If I have any complains, it's this - The Hobbit wasn't long enough. The movie seemed all-action, all-of-the-time. There was little time to relax. The LOTR's plot took us to Rivendell and we relaxed when Frodo slept, and slowly the Council scene got us back into recovery mode. There was no such reprieve during The Hobbit - the conflict merely chances from Dwarf vs Orc, to Dwarf vs Elf, and then to Dwarf vs Goblins, and back to Dwarf vs Orcs again. I'm really hoping the extended editions (as promised by Peter Jackson during this year's San Diego's ComicCon) will address this. As a long time "marathoner", I would like to be able to watch The Hobbit as a whole story in a single day as well. The way it stands, it might be too much of a good thing if all three parts move as fast as this one. There's plenty of time for pausing every so often - but I guess there's so much story to tell we can't afford that luxury in this Cinema Edition. Bring on the 4 hour versions, I say! :)
All in all this movie is a very worthy addition to the Middle-earth saga. The dream-team was brought back together - the same scriptwriters, director, special effects houses, and the same actors as much as possible. The results are obvious, and impressive.
I think The Hobbit 1 - An Unexpected Journey will stand the test of time, like LOTR has done. I can't wait for the blu-Ray box set, I guess around Christmas 2014 or so.
In the meantime, I think I'll go see it again at the cinema, in 48fps again. For the third time in two weeks.
- Jack Machiela