Saturday At The Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Remember, not so long ago, that sense of excitement we all had heading into our local theatres, eager to re-visit characters named Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippen, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn and Gandalf?

By the time the third instalment of The Lord of the Rings franchise finished, those characters were some of our closest friends, weren’t they? Over a span of three Christmas-time seasons, they had rooted themselves, deeply, into our minds and hearts. We laughed with them, cried for them, and shared in their adventures, tragedies and triumphs. We lived alongside both them and the cinematic landscapes they inhabited: the Mines of Moria, Rivendell, Rohan, Gondor , the Shire. Middle Earth.

That sense of excitement and anticipation has nervously returned this year with the The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the first of three films, set to be released over the next three Christmas-time seasons. With new characters and new adventures (and new cinematic formats), could it possibly live up to the audience experience of its predecessor films?

The answer, my friends, is that indeed it does.

The-Hobbit-poster-2One of the main interests, for me, in seeing The Hobbit, was the new technology that director Peter Jackson employed in the filming of the production. Jackson used a high frame rate (HFR) of 48 frames per second – double what films are normally shot at. That means more detail in the image and more fluidity in movement of those images. He also made use of Dolby’s revolutionary ATMOS surround sound system and 3D technology. Trying to find theatres that accommodate some of this new tech is a bit difficult as there aren’t many of them. You can read our article from earlier this week, found here, to give you the run-down on ATMOS and theatre locations.

I was able to see The Hobbit on opening night in a 3D AVX theatre with the HFR and ATMOS surround sound. I knew something was wrong when one of the Cineplex employees stood before us and addressed the audience pre-screening. They’d been having problems with the HFR digital feed in earlier shows. It was freezing about two hours into the film and the only true solution they could come up with, in short order, was showing The Hobbit in 24 frames per second.

Man, what a let down. But I was always going to see this film twice – once in an ATMOS theatre and once in IMAX. After the disappointment ebbed a little, I settled myself down to watch what I was so anxious to see. And The Hobbit didn’t underwhelm. Quite the contrary, actually.

Everything you remember from The Lord of the Rings is here including sweeping, twisting, aerial camera pans over beautiful landscapes and army-filled battle scenes. Heads roll, goblins get skewered, monster Orcs grit their teeth and action sequences are electrifying. All of the ingredients of a great film are here – but it’s the actors, and their interaction with each other, that pull those ingredients together.

Martin Freeman is absolutely wonderful as the young and reserved Bilbo Baggins. Adventure runs in his blood, and he’s done everything to suppress the urge to wander from his Hobbit-hole home. Freeman’s comedic timing is perfectly suited to the character undergoing a transformation and his ability to portray pathos leaves its mark on the viewer. The resolute and unflinching Thorin Oakenshield, the single-minded and hard-headed leader of the band, juxtaposes this. He is an exemplary warrior-king, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage, who also undergoes a change during the length of the film. Here is a character that even the audience would follow into Smaug the Dragon’s lair.

That sense of camaraderie that I enjoyed so much in The Lord of the Rings films, grows here. Although you could argue that there are too many characters in The Hobbit (most of the Dwarves we don’t get to know all that well), everyone does have their own personality. By the end of the film, we have 13 new Dwarven friends to share an adventure with and we’re all vested in reclaiming their lost homeland.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, of course, a long film at nearly three hours in length. Go to the washroom early. That said, if you didn’t mind the length of any of The Lord of the Rings films, then The Hobbit won’t feel long to you. There’s lots to do and see in Middle Earth. Peter Jackson, along with writers Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, pack the story with J.R.R. Tolkein’s notes and appendices – things you wouldn’t have read in the novel. Radaghast the Brown makes an extended stay here, and it’s one of the more enjoyable and memorable. Azog the Defiler, a great albino Orc chieftain, has a central role that is both frightening and menacing. We get to see the White Council, in an important scene, as they deliberate over the apparent rise of a potential enemy, and even a certain Necromancer makes a shadowy appearance. There’s more story afoot here, politically, more moving parts, then there ever was in The Fellowship of the Ring, and it deepens audience interest immeasurably.

From a technical standpoint, I found the 3D neither revolutionary nor unsettling. I was just “always there” – only sometimes enhancing scenes and story. I think I might have ducked once or twice when the action drove through thickets and forests, but I was never enamoured by the technology. That said, and this is an important statement, it never took me out of the film either. The ATMOS surround sound system was absolutely magical at moments. In the forest with birds singing all around, in the pantry with Dwarves laughing, during the scene with the three cave trolls, or when battling in the woods with the sounds of snapped twigs and swords clashing – sound came from everywhere. It was like standing in the centre of Middle Earth and experiencing everything around me for the very first time. Absolutely amazing! Unfortunately, those moments seemed to be few and far between – but not because there weren’t many of them in the film. No, it was because there was so much sound that each individual speaker around me and above me all just merged into one.

And then, of course, there’s the trouble we had with the HFR film freezing up. I might have missed 48 frames per second, but I’m glad The Hobbit didn’t freeze midway through the performance. Cineplex made amends, however, and gave us all vouchers that can be used at a future time. Great customer service, I thought. I’ll be using mine for a HFR 3D IMAX screening this holiday season.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has more comedy in it than any of the other The Lord of he Rings films. There’s even some down right foolishness! Because of this, it’s slightly lighter fare then its predecessors and definitely more fun for younger audiences, but there are still a few scares and intense scenes to get through. Let the original movies be your guide if you’re bringing kids. The Hobbit stands shoulder to shoulder with them in every possible way.

Only now, I suspect kids will be asking “Mommy, I want Orcrist–The Goblin Cleaver, for Christmas” or “Daddy, I want Glamdring–The Foe-Hammer, for my birthday!”

In the meantime, I can’t wait until next holiday season when the second instalment comes out!

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