MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

High-tech frame rate digs epic into a hole

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The first installment of director Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s high-fantasy classic “The Hobbit” proves that more is not always better. The movie unspools in a high-tech cinematic format: 48 frames per second, which is double the number of frames that moviegoers have grown comfortable with since the late 1920s. It’s at least 24 frames per second too many.

The new projection technology makes “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” simply unwatchable. Rather than the softly painted beauty of Mr. Jackson’s previous “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the digitally projected, ultrahigh frame rate gives the imagery in his latest installment a startling crispness and clarity — and with it, the home-video cheapness of a soap opera.

Rather than bring Mr. Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life, the screaming crispness of the new format makes everything seem flimsy and fake. The wizard Gandalf’s staff, which once seemed an object of epic power, now looks like a child’s plastic toy. The home of the story’s titular hobbits, Bag End, now looks like a cardboard backdrop borrowed from a community theater production. Even the clothes worn by the movie’s various dwarves, elves and wizards seem cheapened somehow, more like drugstore Halloween costumes than the sturdy garments of an ancient people.

Mr. Jackson reportedly spent a considerable amount of money on the new format, but it does not draw viewers into the world. Instead, it exposes its artifice.

It’s hard to overstate how distracting the format is, and how impossible I found it to enjoy the movie as a result. In fairness, others reported growing somewhat used to it after an hour or so — but I never did.

Viewers will have the choice of watching “The Hobbit” in the new format or the familiar 24 frames per second. Might the movie work better in a more traditional format? Perhaps. The first hour, a listless rehash of the opening of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” is sluggish and overlong. But the pace picks up after the movie’s heroes — Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a troop of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) — begin their quest.

A prequel to the original trilogy, “The Hobbit” is not driven by the same sense of apocalyptic urgency that powered the first three films. But it does offer a handful of marvelous set-piece spectacles: a trio of cave trolls planning a dinner of horses, the majesty of the elf city Rivendell, a rocky slug-out between mountains that have come to life. Most of all, there is Gollum, equal parts sad and terrifying, a digitally created creature once again given voice and body language by actor Andy Serkis.

Mr. Serkis is a reminder of what technology can bring to a film like this. He is so good — so insistently human — that he managed to distract me, briefly, from the failings of the new format. It is a feat, alas, unmatched by anything else in this overlong, understuffed movie.

Mr. Jackson, who co-wrote the script, has given the movie the subtitle: “An Unexpected Journey.” Sadly, it’s also an unnecessary one.

★★

TITLE: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Mr. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro

RATING: PG-13 for fantasy violence

RUNNING TIME: 169 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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