Short People

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“Shit just got unreal” was my Facebook comment on THE HOBBIT Part The First, which is perhaps a little unfair. The merits and demerits of the movie, the franchise, Peter Jackson the filmmaker and the faster frame rate and the RED camera all deserve a slightly more nuanced discussion than those four words.

I liked it better than Fiona! In some ways it has the same flaws as the LORD OF THE RINGS films before it, only amplified. And the 3D and 48 fps may be problematic in the same way that the digital effects in the STAR WARS prequels were problematic — they make the film seem less of a piece with its predecessors. But THE HOBBIT isn’t as bad as THE PHANTOM MENACE, let’s get that straight…

(Maybe Jackson should have shot at 24 and projected at 48, thereby making the film half as long?)

I enjoyed some of the action and settings, and the HFR probably allowed me to follow the fights and chase more readily than I could otherwise — Jackson tended to film too close in LORD OF THE RINGS, making close-up skirmishes dissolve into blurry chaos. Either because he’s improved or the technology has helped solve the issue, that didn’t happen here. I didn’t enjoy the performances as much. LOTR uses “epic acting,” big, bombastic, cod-Shakespearean and borderline campy, but much of it was done with skill and a kind of good taste. Here, I felt the usually reliable Ian McKellen was huffing and chuntering to himself too much, and he didn’t seem to have any other characters to talk to. Among the dwarves, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner managed to get some human interaction going with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo (some reality but too much schtick), the rest were basically flatulent garden gnomes. Richard Armitage doesn’t manage to make anything convincing or interesting out of Thorin Oakenshield’s bluster and grouch.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

I’m told that McKellen had to act his scene at the dinner table with a bunch of paper cut-out heads on sticks, with light bulbs that flashed on to signal when each character was speaking so he could look in the right direction. I would, on the whole, far rather see that version of the scene. Those character designs are not very appealing! Why does only one dwarf bear any resemblance to John Rhys-Davies in LOTR, who had a very detailed and specific and non-Disney look? Why does one dwarf have a bald head with what looks like a bar code on it? One looks like a waxwork of Finlay Currie, one Sean Penn, and several of them have shoelaces for hair. Not a good look.

But the reason I went, and was excited to go, was the 48 frames thing. I’d heard so much about how horrible it was, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t picture a big expensive epic that moved like a cheap TV show, and I was fascinated to see what that would be like — it was sure to be interesting! I got a lot of intellectual pleasure trying to describe that awful Zemeckis mo-cap BEOWULF, so I just couldn’t wait.

It was indeed a very interesting thing to see. It may have had invisible benefits to action and movement which we’d only be aware of if comparing directly with a 24fps version, but it did some spectacular uglifying. Some people have compared it to cheap soap operas, to demo reels, but what I was reminded of was a making-of documentary. There you see the actors, fully costumed and made up, on set, delivering dialogue — and it’s not the same as the movie, because it’s filmed with the wrong camera, and you don’t feel part of the action the way you do in a film, you feel like an observer on the set. It’s very REAL, for sure, because the sense of cinema is stripped away, but this exposes every bit of artifice in the design and presentation and performance. Even Howard Shore’s music seemed weirdly wrong, as if it was being piped into the hobbit hole.

This applied mainly to the Bag End scene and other conversations. The only acting scene that really worked was the “Riddles in the Dark” confrontation with Gollum, which was great and I think one would have to be pretty curmudgeonly or else just averse to any kind of halfling-based performance piece to dislike. Oh, and Sylvester McCoy was good when he was on his own, acting with CGI hedgehogs.

The long shots looked mostly OK, I thought, and still scenes were fine. The action had a verité feel that made me think something like CLOVERFIELD might be good at 48fps. I wondered if the dragon attack would gain any of the feeling of real disaster footage, like 9:11 or the tsunami, but the swooping filming style didn’t allow for that. There was a very weird clash of feelings when Jackson intercut the big subterranean goblin chase with Bilbo’s one-one-one struggles with Gollum — Gollum’s last sequence had a particularly televisual quality, like a 70s Outside Broadcast Unit section from Dr Who — those plastic-looking caves. And then Gollum would crawl into shot and there’d be the thrill of the impossible — a modern CGI character who couldn’t be played by a man in a suit and who looks very convincing, appearing in the background of a fake cave that looks like part of actuality footage shot forty years ago with a tube camera. Not an effect that I think was intentional, or desirable, except that it was so damned odd it gave me a lot of pleasure.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

What I’m saying is that although I did get somewhat used to the process over the nearly three hour running time, I was still blown out of the movie by it repeatedly, right up until the end. If the movie had seemed like a masterpiece, that would have been hugely frustrating, but as it was only a middling Middle Earth epic, I was actually entertained by my own on-again-off-again disengagement. I mildly enjoyed the big fight at the end, but not as much as I enjoyed the High Weirdness of megabudget + cheapness. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of wagon wheels, though: apparently at a higher frame rate they not longer seem to turn backwards, as they do at 24fps. Jackson cruelly robbed me of the chance to finally see correct spin.

Remembering the troubles people had with early sound and widescreen, we shouldn’t be too hard on any problems Jackson’s encountering — maybe our eyes will simply retrain our brains and the associations with crappy video will fall away and the merits of the new technology will become obvious. But for now, I say enjoy the weirdness — you won’t have had an experience like this before.

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18 Responses to “Short People”

  1. Nerd alert – only one dwarf looks like John Rhys Davies’ character, Gimli, from LOTR because (and I can only presume your talking about the dwarf I mean) because he’s playing his father, Gloin, who was a member of the troop in the book.

  2. The visuals sound truly awful. I lost any interest in the novelty of the new technologies of cgi long ago, mostly because they seem wed to a new aesthetic I find in bad taste. Gollum in LOTR was an exception, a vivid character I enjoyed as I much as I would if it had been expertly animated. Though I was a huge fan of the books as a lad, the LOTR films only worked in moments. Besides the gorgeous natural scenery of New Zealand, the one bit that stays with me is the trek across the flooded battlefield (or lake, or whatever it was), with the creepy, haunting image of the submerged corpses.

  3. Hilary — Gollum WAS expertly animated. It’s a combination of motion-captured performance and animation, and the latter part of the process tends to get underrated, perhaps because it doesn’t sound as “new and exciting”. Mo-cap has advanced since then, but animators still play a vital part in the process.

    I can understand why Gloin and Gimli have a family resemblance, but I can’t understand why his look is barely referenced in the other dwarves.

  4. Not sure why it should be referenced by the others, except Oin, his brother (grey one with the ear trumpet). Surely one of the biggest comnplaints about the dwarfs in the book is that they’re all pretty much indistinct from one another, except Bombur who is the token fat one (ie: comedy relief and obstacle).

  5. The Hobbit made my list of “films I have no intention of seeing,” right along with Django Unchained, Rise of the Guardians, Jack Reach-Around and The Guilt Trip.

    Life is too short.

  6. But they’re indistinct in the film except from having differently bad hair. Trying to distinguish between thirteen dwarves is a mug’s game!

    I will go and see Django Unchained. I read part of the script and was intrigued about how offensive and creepy it would wind up being.

  7. I don’t have any intention of seeing this movie either, but I greatly enjoyed your review. Informative AND funny. Dude!

  8. Thanks!

    The worry is, suppose Jackson and Cameron get their way and we all get used to seeing films at HFR. Doe older movies then come to seem quaintly juddery, the way silent movies seem when you’re not used to them? Does every film made before The Hobbit come to seem tiresomely old-fashioned to the modern public? That would be a great shame, and an acceleration of a problem that already exists.

  9. It’s a good point, but I guess I have a fatalistic attitude about that kind of thing. Things become outmoded and archaic, and maybe that will happen to 24 FPS. On the other hand we live in a kind of Golden Age of silent film, even if the number of people involved is relatively small. Maybe we’ll return to an era of variable frame rates, who knows?

  10. A nicely optimistic view. I guess variable frame rates have arrived with The Hobbit.

    Was trying to work out what else it would be good for besides verite: possibly dance, but then directors would need to rediscover head-to-toe framing and long takes that focus on performance. That would be nice.

  11. Good review, nicely framing the major issues of the new format. I didn’t have too much of a problem with the unusualness of it. As a theatregoer I’m used to impossibly high resolution and infinite framerate 3D images. Also dodgy sets and costumes.
    On the plus side I find the modern 3D shaky-cam blockbusters very tiring to watch, this wasn’t…well not for the same reasons at least. I’ll give the 48fps due credit for that.
    The problems I had were pretty much script based. The Hobbit is a kids book and pretty much a fun breezy read. Relative to Tolkien’s other work at least. This film is heavy, pompous, VERY long and boring. I felt like I’d been in the cinema for weeks! Then at one point 2 characters actually say “Out of the frying pan” “…and into the fire”. Now THAT pushed me right out of the movie.

  12. Jackson’s attempts to get humour into LOTR mainly fell flat, because the comedy was so broad and Brain Dead-like. Here, the source invites a lighter treatment, but the film has to play as consistent with the previous films, so the problem persists.

    I did think the solution to the talking birds and animals issue was quite smart, though, with Gandalf using a butterfly as courier. That addresses an issue with the novel’s Smaug climax which will help them out in part 3.

  13. David E high fives! I’m starting a boycott of all 3 (do ya think Peter Jackson has noticed?)

  14. Interesting thought about 48 FPS being good for dance films. I”m hoping to see the 3D Cirque du Soleil film this week, and maybe it would be good for that kind of thing. Or the Pina Bausch film that Wim Wenders did.

  15. I did not see it in 48fps. I wonder how that will change my reception?

    I think it tried its very best, but I found it to be overworked and overwritten at times… one of the great things about Jackson’s take on LotR was that the language still sounded archaic, and kind of obscure, and overly theatrical, which is how the entire series of novels comes across for fully 500k words. And within that insane wordiness, the fight scenes are actually very short and short on details, so the brief, punchy battles in Jackson’s adaptation (or at least in Fellowship, haven’t seen the other two in a long time) are perfectly apt. Anybody who couldn’t warm to that just isn’t cut out for Tolkien’s sensibility.

    Unfortunately, The Hobbit makes the fight scenes long and trippy and artificial, and it makes the speeches very amateur script-writerly. Bilbo’s and Thorin’s speeches were sadly packed with cliches, rather than obscure internal mythological references and roundabout outsized literary phrasing.

  16. Also, I LOVE their rendition of That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates, and I liked their Misty Mountains Cold, too. I’m down with trying to turn adolescent high-fantasy into gonzo musical theater.

  17. I liked Misty Mountain Cold too — Jackson did a good bit with Billy Boyd singing over a battle scene in the 3rd LotR, which seemed influenced by the “Sodomy” number in Meet the feebles (same idea anyway: sweet song on soundtrack over violent action scene). A shame he didn’t do anything (or anything I can remember) with The Road Goes Ever On. I’d love to see him do a musical.

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