The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ★★

Peter Jackson and company's decision to turn The Hobbit into a trilogy—and a trilogy with three-hour parts, at that—was ill-considered, to say the least. In trying to cover every little piece of the novel—never a smart idea when adapting for the screen—Jackson and his co-writers allow themselves to get sidetracked from the driving force of the narrative too often. An hour into the movie, you've practically forgotten what Bilbo and the dwarves' central mission is; they're just bouncing from one episodic sequence of turmoil to the next.

Yes, the visuals are expensive and the creature design is detailed, but Jackson's desire to indulge every single Orc and Warg and goblin and stone giant becomes incredibly tedious. Only Tolkien purists who want to bask in every detail and wide-eyed 8-year-old boys encountering the material for the first time won't get bored with all the empty action. Plus, the reason The Hobbit is such a fun book to read when you're young is that you get to imagine the creatures and the landscapes yourself. When a painstakingly rendered CGI version towers before you, the original spirit of the work is lost, in large part.

Furthermore, Jackson is unable to reproduce the highly cinematic, old-fashioned sense of epic scope that the Lord of the Rings films possessed, so you never really feel the weight of the story here, like you often did during that trilogy.

Lastly, a few notes on the 48 frames-per-second 3-D, which I will later expand on in a Critic Speak column:

1) The primary reason that critics have become so preoccupied with the technology is because there is so little else about that movie that is worthy of discussion. If the movie were better, we wouldn't be focusing on the 48FPS projection nearly as much.

2) Yes, the new technology looks hyper-digital and soap opera-like, but why does this matter? Who's to say that cinema has to have one "look"? Handheld cinematography is different from a camera on a tripod, too, for instance. 48 FPS does not threaten the existence of conventional 24 FPS photography if that's what a filmmaker chooses, so where's the beef?

3) The technology clearly looks better in close-ups and long-shots than it does in medium-shots. It works for close-ups because it gives the illusion of greater resolution, heightening facial details, and it works for long-shots in which the camera moves because it eliminates judder. But medium-shots which show characters' full profiles are disarming because the higher frame-rate gives humans the appearance of weightlessness, as if they could start to float like balloons at any second. 24-frames-per-second, by contrast, gives a much stronger illusion of gravity.

4) The increased ability to see CG effects in action scenes makes them look much cheaper and less realistic than they look at 24 FPS. This is a problem, because you can't afford to spend much more on a movie than what Warners already spent on The Hobbit, and thus, the CG is the best we have at the moment. The scene in which the gang flies on the Carrock looks so artificial in its delineation of CG creatures from background, it might as well have been filmed in front of an old rear-projection screen.

5) 48 FPS makes 3-D action clearer, but it won't make anyone like 3-D who didn't already like 3-D. The third dimension is still too dim and the glasses are still too uncomfortable for my tastes. Life of Pi was a far better sales-pitch for stereoscopy.

6) I think the clear future for this technology is in motion-capture and animation, not live-action. It would be considerably less jarring if the movie were not a live-acton/CG hybrid. Bring on Avatar 2 and let's see what Pixar can make of 48 FPS, too.