Thursday, January 10, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) -- Overall Rating 2.5 / 5

Starring Martin Freeman & Ian McKellen.
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Rated PG-13 (for graphic scenes of avian hot carl).

Story: 3 / 5
Direction: 2 / 5
Acting: 3 / 5
Visual: 2 / 5
Overall Rating: 2.5 / 5
Explanation of rating categories appears at the bottom of each review posting.

Before I get into the actual film I would like to make one note. I intentionally saw this film twice, once in standard frame rate without 3D and again at high frame rate (48 fps) with 3D. I felt that the later would distract me from the film if it turned out to be garbage, which I assumed it would, based on some early reviews. My “Visual” rating is based on the 2D viewing, because that is the version left to posterity. In thirty years’ time we won’t be watching the 48 fps version in 3D because that fad will have died out.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes the first 45 minutes of The Hobbit story and turns it into an almost 3 hour exercise in patience. What was a simple children’s story is ineffectively turned dark and moody in an effort to match the tone of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It’s a mostly inoffensive movie. The performances are wonderful. Martin Freeman nails Bilbo and Andy Serkis lost nothing in the years between film trilogies. But its attempt to turn children’s material into something serious fails on nearly every level. The Hobbit is a children’s story, the dwarves are meant to be comical characters. It was funny when they got into mischief and Gandalf had to bail them out. Here they are brooding warriors on a quest to reclaim their cherished home, but still have to perform all the same buffoonery. How can I take Thorin seriously when all he ever does is fail? His epic backstory falls flat when I see him make one poor decision after another.

There’s a relentless, murderous, orc (added for the film version) who has his arm severed and then replaced with a metal spike that’s actually jammed through the stump of his arm where the skin has grown around it. He cuts off Thorin’s grandfather’s head and throws it at him with the eyes still open and covered in fresh blood. There’s also an oafish wizard who has bird feces all over his face and tries to give mouth to mouth to a CGI hedgehog. The film attempts to seamlessly move between scenes of these characters and hopes we don’t mind the abhorrent tonal shift.

The look of the film at the standard frame rate is repulsive. It’s dull, blurry, and the visual effects are on par with an Asylum production. The lone exception is Gollum, who looks even better than he did in the Lord of the Rings films; here’s an example (be patient, he will show up!). Gollum should look better, the technology has progressed leaps and bounds, so why does everything else look so terrible?

The answer to that question is depressing. The answer is 48 fps and 3D. Peter Jackson intended this movie to be viewed at the higher frame rate and in 3D. He filmed it that way. My assumption is that he knew he wouldn’t be able to exhibit it this way in every cinema so he basically just ran the film through some basic process that reduced the frame rate and merged the 3D layers. The result is blurry and dull. It’s possible, but I have no evidence of this, that Weta did go back and re-render the Gollum scenes for 24 fps in 2D in order to make sure that didn’t look terrible, as it was the lone reference the audience would have from the earlier work. If the armless orc and the bird crap wizard on a bunny sled looked bad they had no frame of reference to say “Hey, that looked so much better in the other films!” With Gollum we had that.

With that said the high frame rate 3D presentation was something spectacular. A lot of people have complained, I am not one of them, though I think my distaste for the original presentation has affected my judgment. For the first few minutes everything looks sped up, but your eyes adjust. After that only a few scenes struck me where the characters appeared to be moving too quickly. It does look like a high production value soap opera (48 fps gives it more of a “video” look). Some of the costumes looked a little cheaper with the high frame rate because the camera is capturing more information. Beyond these things it looked great. You could tell this is how he intended it to be viewed. Action sequences were suddenly crisp and clear, whereas in 24 fps in 2D they were a blurred mess.

So the real question is should more movies be filmed at 48 fps and in 3D. Absolutely not! This is a terrible idea. This is like a song being sung at a higher than normal pitch, then mechanically reduced down to normal pitch, which results in distorting it and making it sound terrible, then turning around and saying “Isn’t the original high pitch song better?” Yes, it is better than the crappy slowed down version, but here’s an idea... just sing it at the normal pitch in the first place! If I had my way films would still be shot on film, because the magic of film is the illusion. I don’t need to see every pimple on an actor’s face, and every seam in his cheap felt costume. This is a rare example where the lesser of two evils is the high frame rate, and only because the care and attention wasn’t given to cleaning up the standard frame rate for the traditional presentation.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, but with a sort of “sigh” at the end. It’s still more fun than your standard Hollywood fare, but it lacks the magic of the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the innocent wonder of its source material.

Explanation of Ratings

All ratings are on a 5 point scale where 1 is the lowest possible score. A score of 3 indicates the film was simply effective in this regard. A score of 5 indicates perfection in a given category. The overall rating is a simple average of the four scores.

  • Story -- How well the film was written?  Did the story make sense?  Were there plot holes?  Was the dialogue natural for the style/genre?
  • Direction -- How well was the film put together?  Did all of the elements come together properly?  How was the pacing?  Was the tone consistent and effective?  A subcategory of this would be editing, but for the purpose of these reviews it is combined into one category.
  • Acting -- How good were the performances?  In a drama did the lead actor/actress draw the audience in?  In a comedy where the performers funny?  This is an amalgam score of all the performances in the piece. A single great performance can elevate the entire score, but a bunch of bad performances can just as easily bring it down.
  • Visual -- How did the film look?  If there were visual effects were they used appropriately and did they look good?  Did the overall look enhance the telling of the story?


  1. While the LotR films feel drawn out at times, none of them feel as drawn out as The Hobbit. There's numerous references to things that are of no consequnce in the film (they may have consequence later, but a film needs to stand on its own - I can't recall any consequenceless bits in the LotR films.)

    As for the HFR and 3D, I agree with you that you get used to it, but one thing that kept getting me throughout the film was any time there was a large or rapid pan. In 24FPS, such a pan would be blurred. In 48FPS, it's crystal clear. This sounds like an improvement, but only if one forgets how our eyes work.

    Turn your head all the way to one side, then quickly turn it to the other. Did you see every single detail of your field of view? No, it was blurry. Not so for quick pans in The Hobbit, and they frequently made my brain go "Gah!"

    1. I had a discussion with one of our other contributors, David, about the same thing in regards to panning. If this is "the new way" then a "new way" of shooting films needs to be developed. Just as film makers had to adapt to 24 fps (from the early 14 fps), then to sound, and then to color, so it must be now if 48 fps is "the future".

      Either institute some kind of digital artificial blur with a fast pan or just eliminate fast panning altogether.