Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Getting to Be a Hobbit With Me
There and Back Again...and Again...And A-GAIN.

Peter Jackson returns to Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the scene of his greatest triumphs as a film-maker.  And it hasn't been easy for him.  "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy took the film industry by storm, changing all sorts of accepted things, like "sittable" film length, production timetables (filming three films simultaneously), elaboration of production design, and whether a "fantasy" film can ever be taken seriously by the Oscar Academy for anything other than technical awards.  In fact, when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture a few years back, more than one gossip-monger (or as they're known, "industry press") suggested it was for the entire series of films, rather than for the merits of the final one.  I believe that.  So, pressure immediately started to bring Tolkien's "The Hobbit" to the screen in as much the same way as possible, with Jackson producing and Guillermo del Toro directing, a good choice, actually (and the film benefits from his bizarre creature designs).  

But, "The Hobbit"'s past caught up with it, and the several (animated) versions of it came into play over who owned the film rights, and so The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a complicated production titles sequence with Warner Brothers the (North American) distributor and New Line Cinema and M-G-M as the production facilities.  M-G-M's financial troubles (now long forgotten in the wake of Skyfall's nearly billion dollar take) caused del Toro to drop out, leaving Jackson and his orc-army of New Zealanders to once again handle the short-duties for the assembled hobbitage.

And how is it?  Much as you'd expect.  It's as if they'd never stopped production on the first series, and so sure of the continuity are they, that the moments immediately preceding the start of The Fellowship of the Ring are presented, as if it was the easiest thing in the world to do.  The film's been getting lukewarm reviews, and I can't can't quite fathom why. Nothing's really different.  The supporting cast is uniformly the same (there's no Viggo, but Frodo is briefly there, and Martin Freeman takes over the role of the younger Bilbo Baggins in a way that seems to suggest a more spry Ian Holm with much faster and more comedic reaction-sense), but the main criticism seems to be a more leisurely pace.  This, I don't mind.  Jackson has always regretted not showing more of Hobbiton, which might have given "The Lord of the Rings" more of a sense of "home," and as something worth fighting for—a theme played in spades in TH:AUJ.*

Seeing as so much of it is set in the Hobbit's land, and that the cast is dominated by a baker's dozen of knock-about dwarves (see below for a guide) that have a propensity for one-liners and malapropisms, the tone is considerably lighter and larkier (and dare I say "precious") than the Doom-laden "Rings" trilogy, and it is only once the band of adventurers get going that things change to the previous series' denatured color schemes, brooding skies, ugly thuggery and general bad-assery ensues.**  The pace may be slower, but the film is considerably richer for all of that, and with so many characters in this arc, it's rather a luxury to get to know them before they are threatened in all sorts of ghastly ways.

The other issue with this Tolkien adaptation is technological.  Films, since the frame-rate has been standardized, have traditionally been projected at twenty four frames per second, the estimated time that an image is retained by the eye.  Now that film is mostly passé, the video standard is 30 frames per second, but it's largely an arbitrary rate to match the traditional film experience.  During the late 70's, special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull offered up something he called "Showscan" which was 70mm film projected at 60 frames per second, which produced a larger, sharper image with less "streaking" of movement, due to the higher frame rate.  I saw one of these "Showscans" at the Vancouver World's Fair and the effect was like watching a richer, more beautiful version of videotape.  It was still film, with its photo-chemical reaction to light, but far more relatable to a "life-image" than film.

TH:AUJ is photographed digitally, but at a frame rate of 48 frames per second (what is being called HFR, or "Higher Frame Rate"), twice that of standard film, and in 3-D (to make what Jackson calls a more "immersive" film experience).  The effect, once one has adjusted to it, is quite magical.  Jackson doesn't try to do the 3-D tricks that Ang Lee does in Life of Pi, but the faster frame rate does improve the effect of things moving close by in 3-D; there is no longer the "stutter" effect, if something is moving by in the "near-field" at any rate of speed, which is something of a relief.  And given that Jackson employs even more helicopter shots over New Zealand terrain here than in the "Rings" trilogy (as well as parallel swooping "crane" shots during the many sequences underground), that's a big help.  Where it has its drawbacks are in some scenes that make the CGI characters look like toys figures, some of the impressive building constructs look like play-sets, and a slight mismatch of CGI (particularly during flying scenes) melded with terrain.

Still, it is hard to quibble when the image is so sharp, Jackson's color sense is eye-popping, and he still manages to keep a shimmering image through murky 3-D glasses.  It doesn't look like videotape (as so many reviewers seem to think), as the lighting is more graded and subtle, but the movement recalls a better videotape image, and even something moving fast still has a better chance of being registered by the naked, or glasses-hampered, eye.  It also allows the telling detail in even the CGI-est of images, like the moistness in Gollum's eyes, or the deep crags under Gandalf's.  It is oddly transporting, and given the care that everyone has put into it, it's a very rewarding experience.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a Full-Price Ticket (worth it in 3-D and HFR).

Wilhelm Scream Alert: at 02:05 and 02:35

Ya can't tell a dwarf from a halfling without a program.

* Thauj...sounds like a character name.

** Speaking of which, things have now approached and gone past the "Indiana Jones" threshold for physical believability here.  There's one particularly Rube Goldbergian sequence fighting trolls in an underground mine that strains credulity—but then, we're talking about a movie with dwarves, trolls, elves, ancient wizards, fire-breathing dragons, giant spiders, animated cliff-sides, and orcs riding big dogs.  That's enough to throw any griping fan-boys off their dyspepsia.  "Dude, this movie troll-kinged the bridge..."

No comments: