Fearful Symmetries

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18 January, 2013

The Hobbit in Glorious 48 FPS

Before seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey I'd read mixed reviews and a lot of panning of Peter Jackson's decision to go High Frame Rate. Ergo I saw the 3D HFR version to judge for myself. I thoroughly enjoyed Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and I expected to be entertained here.

The Hobbit was published in 1937 and is a tale for kids. It features the adventures of Bilbo Baggins who teams up with the King Thorin and his band of merry dwarves who are keen on getting back their treasure at Lonely Mountain which the dragon Smaug claimed in a rampage of death and destruction. Oh, and Gandalf is along to help too. I read the book back in 1985 and have very little recollection of the plot's details so I can't bore you here with a book vs. film smackdown.

Instead I will say that I was genuinely entertained by Jackson's take on the venerable story. Ian Holm reprises his role as Bilbo in his twilight years for the film's opening. Bilbo begins writing an account of his adventures for his nephew Frodo, who briefly appears here. Then the movie's prologue switches gears and gives us the backstory of how Smaug crushed the dwarven stronghold at Lonely Mountain, saw the dwarves driven before him, and then heard the lamentations of their women.

The story begins proper with the younger Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, being approached by Gandalf to help Thorin on his quest, by taking on the mantle of "burglar". Bilbo refuses as he is very happy leading a quiet life of eating and contemplation in the Shire, thank you. Gandalf attempts to get Bilbo to reconsider by having Thorin and his gang show up at Bilbo's home for some merry making. Still, the hobbit is unmoved and it is only the next day that he changes his mind and is off on the adventure of a lifetime.

From here there is an encounter with trolls and a stop at Rivendell where Elrond uncovers more text on Gandalf's map and a council is held featuring Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman. The party wanders the Misty Mountains and, in avoiding the game of stone giants, end up in a goblin keep. Plus they encounter Radagast as played by Sylvester McCoy who was the star of Doctor Who in the late 80s.

Being a fan of McCoy's, I was keen to see what he brought to the film. It was an inspired bit of casting. Regardless of how Tolkien envisioned the brown wizard, McCoy plays him as a crazy wizard uncle with slightl manic tendencies who is completely preoccupied by nature in all its incarnations and has a sled drawn by rabbits. I have only one complaint about him. Radagast is Gandalf's equal; they are two of a handful of wizards sent to Earth by the demiurge to assist in the fight against Sauron. Having his hair full of bird shit seemed inappropriate to me. The guy is a very powerful being and that seemed like a puerile joke to appeal to children more than anything to me. But McCoy is a great actor and moves beyond this. His mood turns serious when confronting the evil in the forest and the presence of the Necromancer and he proves heroic when he tries to lure a band of orcs away from Bilbo and company.

The childish humor returns as our heroes escape from the goblin stronghold. The party falls down a shaft after having killed the goblin chieftain only to have the latter's corpse fall on top of them. While this no doubt appeals to 10-year olds, I found it overly cartoonish. I would also add that our heroes do a lot of falling down into deep caverns and emerge with nary a scratch. And then there are the trolls who sneeze into their dinner giving nary a thought. I can't recall how the trolls were characterized in the book but, again, just a little too far over on the childish side for me.

Despite these missteps, I simply had a good time at the cinema. Jackson's special effects crew again did a magnificent job bringing Middle Earth to life on the screen. The battles and chase scenes are exciting and the story is peppered with bits of comic relief, not all of it childish. The Hobbit is just a grand old adventure. I also must credit the filmmakers with a wonderful ability to shift from light-hearted moments to very serious ones seamlessly. I liked how the movie changed tone and did so in a way that felt natural. For example, Radagast is the absent-minded professor one minute and the next he is dealing with a pall being cast over the forest yet the change in tone doesn't feel abrupt or forced. And Gollum's appearance was most welcome. He is a great character who is pathetic and fear-inducing at the same time. The scene here is fantastic. It's slow moving in contrast to the battle raging above and the mixed emotions evoked for Gollum also contrast with the good and evil, black and white ethos of the story.

Lastly I want to say that the high frame rate was wonderful. I liked how the images were sharper and more realistic. Scenes with people running seemed like they were sped up at first but I got used to it. Personally, the HFR just felt like another visual style. Some movies desaturate colors to achieve a certain look or favor a particular color palette, for example. Film noir is characterized by the use of shadows. HFR is just another technique in a cinematographer's kit bag to achieve a distinct visual style. The 3D seemed to complement the heightened realism well.

Who, if anyone, will take up the HFR challenge next?
|| Palmer, 3:34 PM


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