Threepenny Thursday – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

13 Dec

The world of Middle Earth is one that is near and dear to my heart, probably even more so than our own. Our world kinda sucks in comparison: they have the Shire and dragons and magic and the Elves. They have Ents, and wizards! We have AIDS and suicide bombers and Chris Brown. Kind of a no-brainer.

Of course, they also have Dark Lords and hideous Orcs and murderous Wraiths. You take the bad with the good, you know? That was pretty much my attitude when watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. There were parts of it that didn’t quite work for me, but on the whole it charmed the hair right off my feet.

For our recently-thawed readers, a quick synopsis: a stunted hippie lives a peaceful (if slightly humdrum) existence comprised mostly of smoking weapons-grade tobacco, until a homeless man forces him against his will to embark on a life-threatening quest. So, basically, it’s an episode of Scooby-Doo.

hauj_gandalf

The production design is truly incredible. Richard Taylor and the WETA team have outdone themselves. The costumes and makeup are spellbinding, with intricate detail and impressive variety. The early scenes in Erebor do an incredible job of creating a lively, vibrant, and glorious culture for the race of dwarves, which is balanced against the pale and wriggling goblins scampering along the creaky wooden walkways of the Misty Mountains. The representation of each different Middle-Earthican culture is distinct and full of flavour, and I couldn’t get enough of any of it. My eyes were like Bombur drooling at an endless banquet table. And speaking of eyes, there’s lots to say about the visuals.

The colour palette was interesting, with many bright and vivid tones. Much of the landscape and sets looked like splashes of high-definition paint; very helpful in enhancing the “fantasy” aspect. There was a lot of orange, though, enough that I actually noticed it, which is less than ideal. The 3D was put to excellent use, and in the end I was glad it was filmed that way (I’ll also be very interested to see how it pans out in 2D). But the giant elephant in the room is the framerate: while most films are shot at 24 frames per second, The Hobbit was shot at 48, which is normal practice for TV shows. Even if you hadn’t heard anything about it, you’d watch the first three minutes of the movie and know that something was off. What my friend Duncan described as the “soap opera effect” is very evident; people seem to move overly quickly, and the lighting is sometimes unfortunately reminiscent of daytime TV. It doesn’t look the way we expect movies to look, and it is definitely jarring at first. Thankfully, once the adventure begins proper, the cinematography begins to favour wide-angle panoramas and sweeping landscape shots and this effect is less noticeable, and by that time your eyes have adjusted anyway. Again, it’ll be fascinating to see how different the movie looks at a “normal” framerate, but for now I’m keeping an open mind. I can see this being much more of an actual evolution in how movies are made than something as gimmicky as 3D, and if that’s true, the bright and cartoony world of The Hobbit is a great argument for early adoption.

Performances are stellar across the board, especially Martin Freeman as the eponymous halfling, whose stuttering charm makes it hard to imagine the character being played any other way. The company of dwarves manage to be individually distinct and memorable – a true testament to the gargantuan effort put into their design – and we meet some fun new characters as well, from the animal-loving Radagast to the terrifying Orc chieftain, Azog the Defiler (who looks like he’d be comfortable wielding a red lightsaber). A few familiar faces return as well, and unfortunately feel kind of shoehorned in; but I’ll leave that up to you to judge. Except for one small role, which LOTR fanatics and Flight of the Conchords fans alike will witness with squealing glee.

THE-HOBBIT-DWARVES

Everything else I can think of is spot-on. The action is exciting and well-choreographed, the sound design is fantastic (with the ring of dwarven hammers and some stone-giant fisticuffs leaping readily to mind), and the music is stirring and memorable. Which reminds me – there’s singing! Everybody sings, and they sing lyrics straight from the novel, which soothed my cynical soul and dazzled my heart with warmth and charm.

If I had to shorten this review to a single sentence, it would be this: Do not watch this movie expecting it to be like The Lord of the Rings. It isn’t, and to put it simply, the differences between that trilogy and this one are exactly the same as the differences between “The Hobbit” novel and the LOTR books. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a colourful, fun-filled family fantasy adventure (albeit with a few decapitated goblins) and should be enjoyed as such. Gandalf is a handy exemplar: gone is the brooding, scowling, deep-voiced Mithrandir from LOTR, who carried the weight of terrible dread on his shoulders. In The Hobbit, we see a clever, spry wizard with a twinkle in his eye and a quip on his lips. The essence of his character – wisdom, steadfastness, intelligence, hidden power, etc – is kept intact, but Sir Ian imbues him here with a sense of whimsy, which is true to the book and to the spirit of the film as a whole.

I’ll close by shushing the ill-informed, who bleat that they shouldn’t have stretched “The Hobbit” into three films. Having just re-read the book for the billionth time, I’m here to tell you that there’s plenty in there, more than enough to comfortably fill three films; and if you don’t trust this team to handle it well, then feel free to suggest a different one. After beginning this unexpected adventure with Bilbo and Co., I could not be more excited to visit this world two more times, and I have no doubt that Peter Jackson, WETA, the cast, and everyone else will continue to do both the source material and the audience the justice that they deserve.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gets a solid block of Jeffs for its fantastic design, courageous presentation, and fabulous execution. It’ll be a very gloomy Christmas indeed if you miss out on this awesomely fun adventure.

5 jeffs

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One Response to “Threepenny Thursday – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

  1. Your Father. December 15, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    If it gets all the Jeffs, what do you do when the next movie is better?? You should be like a figure skating judge, and save the highest points for the Russians. 😉

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