'The Hobbit': Take the journey
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
When an ostensibly adult film reviewer is called into the realm of what was once called "fan-boy culture" and is now called "nerd culture" (apparently more acceptable to fan boys or nerds), there are all sorts of extra-cinematic factors that one must take into account. This year has already seen two near-sacraments of nerd culture enter theaters and clean up with the box office popular vote. But the noise around "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" had a more fraught quality than most pre-release hype. Never mind the post-release defensiveness. Given their frequent proclamations of triumphalism, nerd-culture champions are a neurotic, tetchy bunch. You can't really blame them, either, as they've staked their troth on superhero movies. Think about it.
My point is that it's nearly impossible to enter a theater showing "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" as an innocent. The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson and adapted from a highly beloved and largely respected piece of fantasy literature by J.R.R. Tolkien, is in a sense the rock upon which nerd culture, movie division, has built its church, so this first installment in a new trilogy that takes on Tolkien's prelude to the "Rings" trilogy enters theaters with a lot of baggage. Part of this includes an intriguing production history that at one point had fantasy movie maestro Guillermo Del Toro taking over Jackson's directorial duties (didn't happen, although Del Toro does get a script credit here). And then there's the very controversial 48 fps 3-D.
What, you say? Well, um, yes, the explanation of this technology is likely quite unengaging for lay people, so, quickly: The movie was shot with digital video, using a technology that effectively doubles the frame rate of conventional film, that is, movie film in normal motion shoots and is projected at 24 frames per second. This technology doubles that speed. Now, since what constitutes a "frame" in digital technology is materially different from what constitutes a frame in film technology ... OK, don't nod off; I'll stop now. Point is, 48 fps, and particularly 48 fps in 3-D, is reputed to deliver an image of such stellar clarity that the viewer is apt to feel as if he or she can step into the action. Although why you'd want to is beyond me; man, those orcs look NASTY. In any event, this tech is meeting with mixed reviews on account of the ostensible qualitative similarity it has to high-definition video you'd see in home theater.
But let me not get ahead of things. With the weight of all this stuff weighing on the future assessor of the movie before the lights have even gone down, how does "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" finally play? I'd have to say pretty well, if you like this sort of thing.
The movie kicks off with appearances from beloved "Rings" stalwarts Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, setting up a frame story for the flashback where we're introduced to the young Bilbo Baggins, who's played by Martin Freeman of much British television fame, and is a very excellent choice to portray the homey but ultimately intrepid Hobbit. Given that my own sole experience of Tolkien involved having my copy of "The Hobbit" stolen and tossed down the hole of an outhouse before I could finish the first chapter when I was in summer camp after fifth grade, I can't really vouch for the fidelity of the adaptation. I gather that the basic plot, in which Bilbo is enlisted by Middle-earth wizard Gandalf the Grey to assist a group of dwarves in reclaiming a castle that's now the residence of a surly dragon, has been beefed up by adding a long-standing grudge between a dwarf king and a terribly fearsome albino orc.
It's been almost a decade since "The Return of the King," the final picture in the "Rings" trilogy, and I'm really not up on my Middle Earth lore. Which is frustrating for the first hour of this nearly three-hour picture, as said first hour, in which old Bilbo and Frodo talk of this and that, and young Bilbo and Gandalf and varied dwarves get acquainted, is what the director Quentin Tarantino calls a "hangout movie." Only the people hanging out are short, have hairy feet, et cetera.
Things do pick up as elves enter the picture (Cate Blanchett has the movie's only female speaking role as one of their number), plot thickens, lots of nutty action sequences unfold (the encounter in the goblin kingdom is an inspired mashup of Hieronymus Bosch and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"), and Bilbo meets a (relatively) young and vigorous Gollum in a sequence that's just classic. No, really, it's great.
And I liked how the 48 fps 3-D presentation looked. It's highly variable: Depending on lighting, backgrounds and other factors, it can deliver that sheen that one associates with bizarrely calibrated HD displays in big-box stores. But for most of the movie's running time, I found that it provided a pretty convincingly immersive experience, and I look forward to the technology's evolution/refinement. Which I guess also means I look forward to the next two installments of the trilogy, even if Led Zeppelin remains my preferred platform for Tolkien-mythos consumption.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.