Return to Middle Earth – in 3D!!!

It’s been nearly a decade since our last cinematic journey to Middle-Earth, and The Hobbit, Peter Jackson’s return to that mythical world he helped realize at the turn of this century, doesn’t disappoint.  Though not quite on the same level as Jackson’s first three Tolkien films, the least of this saga is still better than nearly every other fantasy film, and if the next two chapters are as good as this one, I’d say we’re in for one heck of a fun ride.

The Hobbit is essentially Lord of the Rings for kids, which is entirely appropriate, as Tolkien’s original novel was a children’s story written for his son, Christopher, who was just a small boy at the time.  Peter Jackson manages to stay true to the lighthearted whimsy of the book, while simultaneously keeping one foot planted in the darker, more violent, adult-oriented world of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It’s interesting how these films are being made as prequels, whereas originally, The Hobbit was written first, with The Lord of the Rings serving as an epic sequel to that story.  This time around, the order is reversed, allowing Jackson to properly pay homage to the most important story elements from The Lord of the Rings, making The Hobbit a true prequel trilogy, much more so than the Star Wars prequels, in my humble opinion.  My favourite part of the film, in fact, is the scene in which Warning! Spoiler area! To read click here!, because this is the decision on which the entire six-film saga hinges and it’s shot with the appropriate gravity due to such an important moment.

The Hobbit is filled with many such wonderful moments, and just as many wonderful characters.  Case in point:  the numerous dwarves who make up the traveling party that Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, joins.  To be fair, it’s been several years since I’ve read the book (probably not since the last Lord of the Rings film came out, so at least ten years, give or take), but I remember that they all seemed to just blur together into a monolithic group.  They were simply “the dwarves.”  I never got to know them as individuals; that is, until now.  In the movie, each dwarf has a unique look and a unique personality, so not only is there no danger of getting them mixed up, but they all feel like fully realized characters, making The Hobbit a truly effective “men on a mission” movie.  I found myself drawn to the warm friendliness of kindly old Balin, the youthful energy of Bofur, Kili and Fili, and the gruff, “old warrior” spirit of Dwalin.  And then there’s Thorin Oakenshield, perhaps the most important character of all.

Despite the title of the film, this is really Thorin’s movie.  It’s his quest that the party undertakes.  It’s he who has the history with the main villain.  It’s he who is the heir to the throne of Erebor, the kingdom which the company sets out to reclaim from the evil dragon, Smaug.  And it’s he whom the film focuses on for much of its running time.  Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous hobbit, gets most of his time in front of the camera in the beginning of the movie, before Thorin shows up, and towards the end of the film, once he becomes separated from the dwarves, but in-between, he fades into the background as a supporting character.  I’m not complaining; Thorin is a wonderful character, and Richard Armitage is wonderful in the role.  It’s just a little weird that in a movie called The Hobbit, the actual hobbit is more of a supporting player; that’s all.

Martin Freeman does a fine job as Bilbo himself, and it’s wonderful to see Ian McKellen back as Gandalf, along with brief appearances by Christopher Lee as Saruman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Andy Serkis as Gollum.  Andy Serkis also stepped up as second unit director this time around, and if the conventional wisdom that the second unit director tends to helm the action sequences holds true this time around, then Serkis has done a masterful job.  The action sequences in this film are amazing; as thrilling and exciting as anything I’ve seen since the original trilogy ten years ago.  The added element of the high frame rate of 48 frames per second, combined with the natively-shot 3D, means that they are also crystal clear without being overwhelming.

The HFR 3D is a mixed bag.  As I just noted, the action sequences are incredible, and once one gets over the dizzying and disorienting effect (the opening flashback, in which we witness the initial attack by Smaug upon the Lonely Mountain, caused me to freak out somewhat and threatened to give me a headache), they’re amazing to watch.  Every last detail is razor-sharp, as if you’re watching it play out in front of you.  The same is true of the sweeping aerial shots, which made me feel as if I were watching an IMAX travelogue of Middle-Earth.  In fact, I got so absorbed in the scenery during these wide angles, that I would often neglect to focus on the actors, even when they were engaged in important conversations.  I kept getting distracted by waterfalls and clouds and mountains and what-not.

During dialogue scenes, however, the movie seems more like a vintage BBC production, albeit with an insanely high budget.  As someone who has a fondness for old BBC productions, however, this didn’t bother me too much, although I still prefer the warm cinematic glow of 24FPS.  Unfortunately, the real weakness of HFR comes during scenes in which characters are moving somewhat quicker than normal (although curiously enough, not during battle sequences.  I have no idea why not.).  Here it looks “under-cranked,” or like the footage has been sped up.  It’s very disconcerting.  This is especially evident during a sequence in which the wizard Radagast the Brown (wonderfully played by Sylvester McCoy, who was once up for the part of Bilbo Baggins himself), a St. Francis of Assisi type who lives in the middle of a forest, is running around trying to figure out why all the animals around him are sick and dying.  It almost seemed as if the projector had broken during that scene, and it made me very nervous and uncomfortable.

One complaint that some have made about HFR is that it makes everything look fake.  In my experience, however, I could not find this to be further from the truth, at least in this particular movie.  I was quite frankly blown away by how real everything looked.  I think that the HFR 3D even tricked my brain into believing it was real, as I found myself physically reacting to what was happening in front of me.  During one particular scene where mountains come to life and battle with each other, I was unable to stop myself from flinching and dodging the boulders that came flying out of the theatre screen.

The HFR doesn’t dispel the movie magic; at least not in the hands of a master filmmaker like Peter Jackson.  If anything, it can enhance it when used properly.  Even though I knew in my mind that certain characters and creatures were computer-generated, when I looked through the window of the screen it was as if I were seeing real monsters, real orcs and goblins, real wargs, and an honest-to-goodness real goblin king.

The goblin king is a fantastic character, by the way.  He’s massive and bulbous and disgusting, yet wickedly funny at the same time.  He’s like an evil cross between Jabba the Hutt and Santa Claus.  I loved every moment he was on screen, brought to life by comedic actor Barry Humphries.  Equally if not more compelling is the main villain of the film, a great white orc named Azog, with whom Thorin has a personal score to settle.  Azog is played with cold menace by New Zealand actor Manu Bennett in motion capture.  Although the character of Azog is canonical to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mythology, he never shows up in the book, The Hobbit.  Jackson brings him in here wisely to give the first film in a trilogy based on one book (!) a strong central antagonist, and he serves his purpose well.

Ultimately, The Hobbit also serves its purpose well as a prequel:  it enhances the original trilogy while still standing on its own as a complete, well-made film.  As I said before, I am very much looking forward to chapters two and three over the next year and a half.  I’m also looking forward to revisiting this film again, but this time in a more conventional 24FPS, to see how different the experience really is.