Three Imaginary Girls

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{The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in Seattle on Friday, 12/14 and is screening pretty much everywhere, but I personally recommend the Cinerama}

In order to talk about Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, you have to talk about the craziness of him creating a new 3D film technology and deciding to use it—even at the risk of alienating some hardcore fans, and also, uh, making some of them literally throw up. But, we’ll get to that later. Let’s start with the actual plot first.

I was worried going into this that the dwarves would mean a lot of slapstick-y nonsense, and my fears were proven true as soon as the prologue about the dwarves was over, and they reached Bilbo’s house. It’s absolutely true that the dwarves are so similar that outside of the leader, Thorin, you can’t really tell them apart. It’s also absolutely true that the quickest way to make me facepalm is to have a bunch of characters sing while juggling dishes, but I digress.

The plot (like any of you going to see it DON’T know—humor me here) is thus: the dwarves were once rulers of this incredible mountain kingdom, and had more gold and jewels than they really knew what to do with, which unfortunately attracted a greedy dragon named Smaug who forced them out in order hoard the treasure.

Then the dwarves were scattered across the land without a home something-something, something-something, and the King’s grandson Thorin fought a bad-ass scar-faced thing called Azog (aka: Amie’s new favorite villain) and chopped off his arm, obviously leaving him pissed off and looking for revenge.

Much later, Gandalf gets bored and decides to trick mild-mannered Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (is there anything Martin Freeman can’t do? Because seriously, he’s perfect. Just like he is in everything — /fangirl Amie) into helping the dwarves “steal” their fortune back. Which for some reason works, even though the dwarves eat all of Bilbo’s food and kind of act like jerks.

So they all set off on an awfully big adventure involving spiders, and some dude who has a bunny sled, and trolls that make a lot of a fart jokes, and a stupid moonlit map, and Rock’em Sock’em Robots giant rock monsters, and a globular Goblin King who lives in a not-very-well constructed kingdom, and giant eagles, and killer wolves and, most importantly: GOLLUM and his shiny precious. 

To be honest, since I took motion sickness meds to avoid hurling my mixed chocolate/regular popcorn all over the Cinerama, I was kind of drifting in and out of sleep from about 20 minutes in until the rock monster boxing match—which caught my attention and then held it steady through the non-stop action from then until the end of the film.

So is it good? Well, I’ll say this: it’s quite a ride. And I think it’s a fine follow-up to the LOTR movies, and a solid beginning to this installment of Jackson’s incredibly detailed Tolkien tribute. It’s not perfect, but it is enjoyable, and I think fans of the first three movies will dig on this one … even if it’s just for Gollum and Bilbo’s scenes alone (a more than worthy reason to really like it).

One of the problems I had—and I anticipated this going into it—is that outside of Gandalf, Gollum, and brief appearances by Elrond & Galadriel, everyone you cared about from the original trilogy is gone. You’re basically starting from scratch with all new characters (I KNOW Bilbo’s in the first three, but Ian Holm doesn’t exactly have a meaty part), and this movie doesn’t have time to spend on developing characters on most of them, because it’s too busy focusing on the WOWTHATLOOKSNEAT stuff.

Here’s hoping Jackson straightens that out in the next two, learns to shave some (serious) time off each scene, and continues to improve on what I think is a pretty promising start.

Now, about that whole FPS thing: Honestly, seeing a film shot at 48 FPS (frames per second) as opposed to the usual 24FPS is REALLY jarring. Everything is clear. Like super clear. Like preternaturally clear. So clear, it no longer looks like you’re watching film; it looks like some crazy combination of animation and HD TV. And the contrast between real live characters and CGI-d creatures or backgrounds is super-super obvious.

At times, that clearness creates an effect that looks cheap. As the camera panned down over Hobbiton, the clarity of the colors and costumes made the scene look like a local RenFair—except, not even as gritty as that. Which is a shame. Because what I want from big, fantasy action-adventures like this is some grittiness … some reality to ground me, so I can really get into the characters and believe that this world exists.

Where the faster frame rate does work is in the gigantic, largely CGI-populated long shots, where complete environments are created, and when the focus is on armys of fantastical creatures. Rivendell has never looked so lush and ethereal; the Goblins’ mountain domain is well executed, and the piles of gold hidden away by the dwarves are insanely beautiful. Plus, both Gollum and the BIG BAD Azog look really f’ing cool.

But as a whole, 48FPS seems to be at best an unnecessary enhancement, and too much of a distraction to really praise. I think my friend Matt said it best (when I was discussing the film with him yesterday), in that it’s a technology that definitely still needs a lot of work before it’s perfect.

James Cameron is probably going to strike me down for saying this, but if you choose to see it in the non-3D 24FPS version, you’re not really going to miss anything; and you might even like it more.

So (as if I could stop you), sure! Go see it. It’s a fine way to spend almost three hours.