Like the majority of those who have seen them, I love the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies and have been excited to revisit Middle Earth since ‘The Hobbit’ films were announced. The act of stretching J.R.R. Tolkien’s short book into three parts has done minimal damage to the first chapter (subtitled ‘An Unexpected Journey’) – especially compared to the 48 frames-per-second format!
The 169-minute ‘An Unexpected Journey’ only spans the first six chapters of Tolkien’s original novel. As I feared, some content feels “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” The Hobbiton opening is dragged out – but not in a fluid way like the extended editions of ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ do. No, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ has a tendency to feel poorly edited and/or over-indulgent. At least fifteen minutes could have and should have wound up on the editing room floor.
At the same time, because I’ve only seen ‘The Hobbit’ once, I wonder how much of the initial drag was caused by the highly distracting and unnatural look of the latest theatrical gimmick, HFR (High Frame Rate). After my first bout with 48 frames-per-second, I have vowed to never willingly partake in an HFR showing again. I cannot begin to describe how awful it looks. All of the negative buzz that we’ve heard for months claiming that it looks like home video recordings, soap opera footage or sitcoms shown on a TV with the SmoothMotion setting fully engaged is 100% true. Production value goes out the window at 48 frames-per-second. Even during a nearly three-hour movie, there wasn’t a single minute where I wasn’t pulled out of the film by this atrocious distraction. The upside: Wide angle sweeping shots and slow motion are smooth, which gives a new depth to the 3D. The downside: Absolutely everything else about it blows.
The only other aspect of the production that bugged me is the same complaint that I had about ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘Return of the King’ – too much CGI. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ remains my favorite film of the franchise (thus far) because of how epic and grand it feels. Shot mostly on location on huge sets or in front of massive beautiful landscapes, the practical nature of the first film makes it the most realistic of the original trilogy. But along comes ‘The Hobbit’ and we get even more CGI than ever. Things that were shot practically in the previous trilogy are now replaced with CGI. The majority of the outdoor Shire footage is digitally enhanced, and looks almost nothing like it did in the previous series. Remember the hairy Wargs and the Orcs who rode them? Well, they’re all CG now. No more makeup. No more costumes. No more life-size replica Wargs or props. ‘The Hobbit’ is set in an obviously CG Middle Earth, one that doesn’t match the look of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
As for the movie itself, once we finally leave the Shire (about 30 minutes in) and set out on the quest to reclaim a Dwarf city from a legendary dragon, ‘The Hobbit’ jumps right into the same tone as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which is really all I hoped for. Greatness ensues. From time to time, we’re told a story from before the narrative in the form of flashbacks. These scenes initially seem like filler pulled from the Appendices, but they actually tie into the story in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ and preface things to come.
To give a current perspective of my feelings, I can say the same thing about ‘The Hobbit’ that I said about ‘The Bourne Legacy‘. I really liked the movie, but it’s surely the least of the four films set in this world.