The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit movie posterI feel kind of sorry for The Hobbit – Tolkien’s original novel, that is. It’s a simple story that bounces cheerfully along in episodic fashion, sketching in a delightful fantasy world along the way. It has singing dwarves and talking animals. It’s cheerful and charming and sweet.

Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Hobbit was always going to be something a little different. Thanks to the success of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there’s a huge weight of expectation bearing down on that epic tale’s slighter, more innocent forebear. So, does The Hobbit have shoulders broad enough to take the load? Last night I had the chance to find out.

First the good. As a fan of both Tolkien’s writing and Jackson’s interpretation of it, I was thrilled to walk back through that little round doorway into Middle Earth. It all looked just as I’d left it, from the gorgeous green pastures of Hobbiton to the radiant waterfalls of Rivendell. It felt like coming home.

Nor did the cast let me down. Martin Freeman’s performance as the young Bilbo Baggins is a joy, and if Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield doesn’t buy him a ticket to the Hollywood A-list I’ll eat my hat. As for Ian McKellen, well, he simply is Gandalf. There are powerful digitally-enhanced performances too, not least from the scene-stealing Andy Serkis as Gollum, though nods must also go to Barry Humphries as the Goblin King and Manu Bennett as Thorin’s nemesis, Azog the Pale Orc.

Jackson’s done a smart job of knitting a thin storyline into the wider Middle Earth mythology – and specifically into his The Lord of the Rings films. He’s also imbued the dwarves’ quest with the necessary gravitas to carry three films. There’s a cheeky framing device featuring Ian Holm as Old Bilbo and Elijah Wood as his nephew Frodo, and other characters from the previous films – not to mention Tolkien’s wider texts – make cameo appearances. For Tolkien die-hards all this is great. Where the average movie-goer’s concerned, it’s something of a problem.

The fact is that the story of The Hobbit just isn’t big enough to support all this peripheral stuff. It’s partly about pace – which is sluggish in the first half, though it perks up considerably as the film progresses – but it’s also about blind alleys. A straight telling of the story would have been simpler and cleaner … and you’d certainly get there and back again in less than three movies.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself. When its running on all cylinders, Jackson’s cinematic storytelling is up there with the best. The character moments, when they come, are powerful and moving – I could just have done with a few more of them. Visually it’s resplendent, and the scene-setting and action are everything I could have hoped for. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is good enough to eat, Howard Shore’s score is a magnificent extension of his work on The Lord of the Rings and, when it comes to visual effects, Weta Digital have raised the bar several notches beyond anything I could have imagined. For all these reasons and more, I’m happy to forgive the film its shortcomings, and I remain eager to see what Jackson will do with the other two chapters of the trilogy.

However, it wasn’t just the film I was excited about last night. It was the technology behind it. I was lucky enough to see The Hobbit at Nottingham’s new Cineworld IMAX screen in both 3D and HFR. For the uninitiated, HFR stands for High Frame Rate, a process in which both camera and projector run at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24. The result? An image that’s sharper and brighter than any I’ve seen – that is, in fact, unlike anything I’ve seen.

Some commentators have remarked that the HFR process makes a film look more like a live TV broadcast than traditional cinema. I don’t disagree (although it’s worth pointing out that it isn’t just the frame rate that creates this effect: the shutter speed and shutter angle of the originating camera play a significant part too). The ‘video’ look is most noticeable in shots involving talking heads in closed sets – soap opera framing, if you like. When you first see it, it’s unexpected, maybe even odd. Speaking personally, I got used to it pretty quickly.

Where HFR comes into its own is, well, everywhere else. Scenic panoramas are spectacular. Complex battle scenes are crammed with pin-sharp detail. Digital characters look entirely real – and their integration into the physical world is utterly believable. The 3D is both fully immersive and easy on the eye – I was delighted to find I’d sat through a movie nearly 3 hours long without any eye strain whatsoever.

Is HFR any good? I rather think it is. We all have a sense of what a movie is ‘supposed’ to look like, but that’s only because our eyes have been trained that way. Still, it’s tough training to shake. HFR looks different. It looks real. When I first saw it, I didn’t think video. I thought theatre. That’s what makes me think this may just be the dawn of a new art form altogether: a kind of cinematic theatre with the opportunity to create a visual language all its own.

Will HFR catch on? Only time will tell. But, with the amount of investment being poured into it, and with major Hollywood players getting behind it (yes, James Cameron is talking about presenting future Avatar films in HFR), I think it’s something we’ll all be getting used to pretty fast. Welcome to the future.

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