Second Thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

HobbitOn the first viewing, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) in “2D”–which of course isn’t two dimensional as we can perceive depth in the images–but on the second viewing, I saw it in HFR 3D Real-D Xd.  HFR is high frame rate whereby the film was shot and then projected at 48 frames per second (fps) as opposed to the usual 24 fps.  The Xd is something Cinemark does that makes the film brighter than usual which balances the 3D glasses (which are essentially sunglasses).  So, after a rough first outing, I was hoping that the 3D might, miraculously, be a different movie than the one I saw hours earlier.  Disappointingly, it was the same movie, but it definitely looked better…sort of.

The purpose (or effect) of HFR is that it creates twice as many images per second that should make the film look more realistic and reduce image blur.  Think of stop-motion animation or claymation.  The way that works is you mold the scene and the character then take a picture.  Move the character a little and take a picture.  So, every time you double the amount of incremental changes and pictures, the smoother and more realistic the movie.  But that can’t go on up forever.  At some point we’re all going to get headaches and only pigeons can enjoy the increased frame rate.  But we’ve got to try it out.

My own perception–and my eyes/brain usually have trouble with the 3D–was mixed.  The 3D images were the best I’ve ever seen.  There’s a shot over the eagles as they fly through the mountains and they stand out well.  3D Lesson 1: Dwelling on depth is more effective than throwing things at the camera.  The downside is in the movement of the characters.  They look twitchy.  At the beginning of every cut it looks as though they’re going at double speed.  This is paradoxical since HFR is supposed to make images smoother.  It was very distracting.  Oddly, this only happened with moving characters.  With wide CGI sweeps and 3D moments, it effectively takes out image blur.  Still, you’ll notice the weird twitching most in the first ten minutes of the movie.  Maybe if they did 36 fps.

One of the fears of HFR is what’s called the “soap opera effect” that often accompanies HD televisions having their interpolation effects on.  Usually, it makes even the highest productions look as though they are shot on video (like a camcorder) and cheap.  Interpolating on an HD tv artificially creates a higher frame rate, so an actual higher frame rate was expected to create the same problem.  This rarely happened.  Some of the brighter scenes border on the effect (especially as Bilbo runs through Hobbiton), but aren’t distractingly bad.

As for content, during the second viewing I only added to my list of complaints.  The only difference is that these complaints were less about the divergence from the book than weaknesses in acting and production choices.

I did have one adaptation issue.  In the book, Thrain (Michael Mizrahi), father of Thorin (Richard Armitage), handed over the map and key to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) while tortured and driven mad in the dungeon of the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch).  In the film, no one knows what happened to Thrain who just handed over the map and key driven mad by the death of Thrór (Jeffrey Thomas), his father.  It is implied that Azog (Manu Bennett) captured, tortured, and killed him.  Here’s what annoys me with this change.  The Necromancer story, the reason for three movies, is rather nebulous in An Unexpected Journey.  In the book, the Necromancer is a known figure from the very start.  Thus, this trilogy hopes to create an evil character, destroy him, and tie it up in a little bow.  That’s selfish and fundamentally alters the plot.  Now characters have to play dumb about the threat, discover who it is, and slowly muster forces to defeat him.  That is, create a tedious cliche for non-fans to roll their eyes at.  You either trust the material or you don’t.

Here are some character gripes that I failed to point out in my first impressions.  First, Gandalf and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) (and this is half a book difference gripe).  These guys have no secrets.  What makes them powerful and interesting characters (in the book) is their secretiveness.  What makes Gandalf funny is his scheming.  But Gandalf has been morphed (with McKellen’s performance) into a sad old man who sneaked a bit of a Snickers bar when he’s got diabetes.  In the book, and I apologize for repeating that clause, Gandalf and Elrond are like gods and their knowledge and plans are too great to comprehend.  In the movie, they’re snobs like a patronizing Illuminati with vague premonitions and galling blind spots.  It utterly destroys their mystique.  Elrond most of all.  Even in The Lord of the Rigns films, he was detached and ethereal.  Here, he and, to a lesser extent, Cate Blanchett‘s Galadriel are jokey and relaxed.  Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) is just wrong.  Radagast should be like a park ranger, but instead he’s a deranged hippy.  It’s just such a Harry Potter-esque move.  Those are mistakes.

Something that goes beyond mere mistake is the character choices of Thorin.  Because they got Richard Armitage, Thorin had to be a posing hero in front of a wind machine.  What’s worse, he’s got a clever face, so they had to make him a clever hero.  Not all leaders are thoughtful and taciturn, looking deeply into the fire to search their souls.  Thorin always struck me as a gruff, self-important Brendan Gleeson rather than Aragorn’s stunt double.  And another thing!  Do wargs have to be the size of horses?  Can’t they just be the size of a great dane or a panther?  That’s reverse-engineering.  They made the goblins into orcs and orcs were large people, so if the goblins rode wargs, then they have to be large horses.  A mistake.

Another pure editing mistake occurs with respect to the elven blades.  These blades glow when orcs/goblins are near.  And yet, the blades fail to glow when they are in the middle of Goblin Town in the heart of the Misty Mountains and when they chase Thorin and company into the trees.  It’s a surprising lapse when you consider the obvious audience demographic: nerds.  How is it that a graphic designer (or nerd) didn’t catch that during post-production?  While I’m in that scene, let me slap the screenwriter in the face for a second.  Thorin says, “Out of the frying pan” and Gandalf finishes “and into the fire!”  That’s nice because it is the name of the relevant chapter.  That’s annoyingly not nice because the wit of the chapter title comes from the company’s escaping the goblins into the trees (out of the pan) and then fend them off with the use of flaming pine cones that are then used to burn the trees the company populates (into the literal fire).  They couldn’t possibly use this line correctly because that would preclude a pointless Thorin-Azog faceoff (since Thorin wouldn’t be able to climb down the flaming tree).

A non-criticism now.  It’s more of an observation.  The comparison of this story’s plot to the Israel-Palestine issue.  It’s not a perfect comparison, but there are plenty of substitutions.  The sole tie to Israel is the issue of “returning home” after a vast diaspora.  That’s enough to be going on with, surely.  Anyway, a small troop of these dwarves are led–ahistorically, I know–by a sympathetic great power, Gandalf (the United States).  Gandalf runs into trouble when dealing with the other great powers.  Saruman (Christopher Lee) says to Gandalf, “You are not the only guardian to stand watch over Middle Earth.”  The dwarves being greedy gold-lovers makes it a pretty easy target for an anti-Semitic claim.  Fitting Bilbo in makes it difficult.  Maybe Bilbo is the American people.  “I will help you take it back if I can.”  But Smaug isn’t really Palestinians…  Palestinians would probably say the Israelis are Smaug.  Israelis would point out that Smaug destroyed the area and maintains a perpetual state of desolation.  It’s not a  perfect metaphor, I said that.  But there is much overt (and simplistic) political values and machinations in the film that needed some mature reflection.  I feel as though they said, “Hey, it’s kind of like that other thing, let’s throw that in.”  But that kind of tokenism isn’t very satisfying.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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2 Responses to Second Thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. William Li says:

    We saw the movie tonight. So much of it was unnecessary. Gandalf just coming out and saying that Smaug won’t know the smell of Bilbo. Thorin’s repeated use of an oaken shield. My biggest gripe, aside from the pacing and badly cued music, is that they changed the Azog story. It’s like they were purposefully trying to piss off nerds like me. If you’re going to shoehorn in a footnote, why not make it accurate? My understanding is that Azog’s nickname is “the Defiler” because he executes Thror and brands “Azog” on Thror’s forehead. After which he tosses the head out to Thror’s friend and throws a purse of coins at him and calls them beggars. This starts the Dwarf/Orc war, and helps illustrate that although they’re noble and “good,” the dwarves are obsessed with revenge to the point of ruin.

    The whole movie suffers from a lot of telling and not showing. They tell you Azog is evil and is “the Defiler” and don’t show you (via the above story). They tell you that Smaug won’t know Bilbo’s scent instead of waiting for the right scene to show you. I feel that they tried really hard to navigate between having a kid’s movie (the Great Goblin comes out of a kids book, and Radagast was just . . . anyway) and having “adult” themes like “returning home.” This is symptomatic of adults who take the intelligence of children for granted, which I feel explains all of the telling and now showing.

    • Totally agree. They waste so much time. It’s unconscionable. I can’t remember when it was, but there were at least three moments where they flat read out a line from a character synopsis. I’m waiting for the extra extended edition. It’s going to take a very good trailer to make me go to a midnight showing of The Desolation of Smaug.

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