Editor Note: Arathorn was an original staffer of TheOneRing.net back in the early days of the site. His involvement in the site has waned in recent years due to professional and familial responsiblities. His perspective on ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is unique as he has remained completely unspoiled and out-of-the-loop for nearly 10 years. Spoilers Ahead!
So, the question you probably want to hear answered is how The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey compares with LoTR. From my perspective, it’s pretty favourable – it worked much better for me than RoTK and FoTR, and probably slightly better than TTT. For context however, this is coming from someone who seriously undermined their enjoyment of LoTR by spoiling themselves rotten – whereas I’ve deliberately kept myself unspoilt for The Hobbit.
The pacing of The Hobbit: AUJ is gentler and more consistent than LoTR – the storytelling unfolds at a much more metered and less rushed pace. At no point did I feel bored – it felt like a leisurely but appropriate telling of the story. Also, where story padding is added, it generally feels that it’s actually dramatically required in order to provide additional context for the ‘real’ story, rather than a jarring and illadvised substitution from the books. For instance, the presence of Radagast is a much-needed and legitimate extension to portray the rise of evil in Mirkwood and Dol Guldur which would otherwise have to be shown as a slightly forced flashback.
Also, the lighter humour and tone of The Hobbit feels much more suited to Peter Jackson’s style – whereas I found myself wincing at many of the incongruously lighter moments in LoTR. I am glad to say that The Shire is presented much more naturalistically than the rather over-the-top utopia of the LoTR films (especially in the absence of The Scouring to balance it out!) – and there are thankfully no sequences remotely approaching the many “jumping on the bed” endings of RoTK (with the possible exception of needlessly belching dwarves…)
Much of the improved consistency over LoTR can be ascribed to Martin Freeman turning in a pretty much perfect performance as Bilbo, alongside Andy Serkis hitting new highs in his portrayal of Gollum and Ian McKellen growing further into Gandalf. In fact, almost all the performances are very strong, with the possible exception of the entirely CGI creation of Azog, who unfortunately comes across needlessly one-dimensionally, complete with some very clunky dialogue (bizarrely exaggerated by being subtitled into English) – think Gothmog, but worse. The contrast is particularly shown up by Barry Humphries turning in a wonderfully charismatic performance as the similarly CGI Goblin King, as well as the spot-on interpretations of the Trolls.
A slightly unexpectedly major overlap with LoTR is the score – beyond the fantastic ‘Lonely Mountain’ theme which underpins the whole film, I didn’t spot any new thematic material at all beyond all the original leitmotifs from LoTR. Whilst the various themes have been reorchestrated (including a fantastic cymbalom introduction for Gollum’s theme), there really feels like very little new material at all – and in some places (Rivendell, The Shire, The Ring) the audio cues sound taken almost verbatim from the various LoTR scores. Given that arguably one of the best things about the Star Wars prequels was the vast range of new thematic material that John Williams produced as a prequel in and of itself to the original SW scores, it seems bizarre that the main new theme here was apparently composed by Donaldson/Roche/Roddick/Long rather than Howard Shore.
Outside the content of the film itself, there is of course the question over its presentation in HFR 3D. The 48fps presentation is unquestionably jarring at first – in my case however, I managed to stop getting distracted by it after about 25 minutes (coinciding with the story really getting going at Bag End). It’s unfortunately true that the strangely smooth motion does evoke the impression of a shot-on-video 1980’s BBC drama – and this impression is made only worse by the way the 3D glasses mute the colour and vibrancy of the footage. I actually took off my glasses briefly during Rivendell and was blown away by how vibrant and bright the print was. Putting glasses on again made it feel slightly as if I was watching it through a fish tank.
The strangest side-effect of the 48fps video however is that certain rapid movements (e.g. Bilbo tying up his dressing gown in preparation to flee Bag End) end up looking as if they’ve been inexplicably artificially sped up, as per the Benny Hill show. I think this is because when we normally see fast movements on film, they are very obviously motion-blurred. But if you see movement which is unexpectedly fast without any motion blur, your brain almost thinks it’s more plausible that you’re watching normal movement that has been ‘sped up’. Either that or PJ is doing something very strange with the framerate in some of the earlier shots in Bag End. On the plus side, the higher frame-rate added much more detail to the various spectacular fight set pieces – a major complaint of the fight choreography of LoTR for me was that the action was so kinetic and motion-blurred that you often couldn’t really see what on earth was going on. HFR fixes this problem admirably, which arguably helps with the immersive experience. (That said, I haven’t seen The Hobbit: AUJ at 24fps yet, so I may be guessing wrong on this).
The 3D is impressive at points – especially in the jawdropping VFX of the Stone Giants’ thunderbattle, and a welcome cameo for Sauron (in a pleasantly understated manifestation as opposed to the boggling eye of RoTK). However, elsewhere the 3D really doesn’t contribute very much (unlike Prometheus, Thor, Hugo, Avatar or other more 3D-aware films) – and does detract noticeably from the clarity of the image, especially in combination with 48fps. My recommendation would certainly be to see it at first on a really good 2D 24fps screen – and then follow it up in HFR 3D a bit later.
To conclude: The Hobbit: AUJ is a more than worthy successor to the LoTR films – and learns from many of their mistakes and avoids many of their disappointments whilst standing true to all their positives. In the end, one of my key metrics for a good film is whether it sucks me in enough for the drama to send shivers up and down my spine… and I’m happy to say that both the sacking of Dale and Thorin’s final showdown managed that big time. The set pieces are bigger and more spectacular than ever, and the film captures both the essence and the detail of the book. What more could you ask for? In IMDB terms, I’d give it 8 out of 10 (with FoTR coming in at 7, TTT at 8, RoTK at 7).