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“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” review: Back to Middle-earth at 48 frames per second

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Let’s face it: after “The Godfather: Part II” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the list of successful prequel movies is pretty short.

Still, it’s no surprise to see “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arriving in theaters this weekend, offering up the first installment of a new, big-budget trilogy that will serve as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films. Jackson’s first series of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novel has grossed almost $3 billion worldwide, so it was a bit of a no-brainer to give the same treatment to the story that started it all, The Hobbit.

Originally published back in 1937, The Hobbit chronicles the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, a diminutive “hobbit” caught up in a quest to kill a monstrous dragon that has laid claim to the ancestral home of a group of dwarves. Bilbo and the dwarves are accompanied by a mysterious wizard, Gandalf, who serves as guide, guardian, and ambassador at different points. Over the course of their journey, the group encounters all manner of enemies and allies, including giant spiders, vicious goblins, and noble eagles – as well as the dragon, Smaug – and Bilbo is forced to reconcile the appeal of an adventurer’s lifestyle with his love for a quiet home and a warm hearth.

By and large, the movie stays true to this theme, too – though it occasionally veers off to expand on threads in Tolkien’s story with new twists in characters’ relationships, a few new characters, and some brief narrative side-trips.

It’s worth noting early on that Tolkien penned The Hobbit as a children’s story – a fact that’s often forgotten due to the darker, more intense tone of both The Lord of the Rings novel and Jackson’s big-screen adaptations. “The Hobbit” filmmaker clearly hasn’t forgotten that fact, though, as it’s clear from the start that “An Unexpected Journey” skews considerably younger than the previous trilogy.

Where “The Lord of the Rings” films were frighteningly earnest with life-and-death stakes for both the characters and the world they inhabit, “The Hobbit” feels more like a grand, occasionally slapstick adventure with a group of bumbling fools trying to pass themselves off as warriors. With “An Unexpected Journey,” Jackson is clearly aiming for a lighter, more humorous tone, and Bilbo’s adventure comes across as more of a lighthearted romp than the deadly serious narrative of Frodo’s journey in “The Lord of the Rings.” While this is also right in line with the tone of The Hobbit as it was written, it’s the sort of difference that could confuse casual audiences expecting an extension of “The Lord of the Rings” and could frustrate fans whose recollection of the original story has been influenced by the modern adaptations.

On the visual side, Jackson’s decision to film “An Unexpected Journey” at 48 frames-per-second instead of the standard 24 in order to improve 3-D visuals has been loudly criticized by purists, but the change isn’t even close to the apocalyptic, career-ending, movie-ruining gaffe that early buzz indicated. While it takes a few minutes to adjust to the extra level of sharpness in the lush visuals of the film’s opening sequence (a sequence probably intended to distract you from that acclimation period), much of the film benefits from the high-def upgrade, which makes everything pop just a little bit more.

Still, that extra “pop” does cause a bit of a distraction during certain sequences – specifically, in scenes that take a bird’s-eye view of the group running through detail-heavy, CG set pieces. Much like the scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when Frodo and his companions are pursued through the Mines of Moria by a horde of goblins, Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves sprinting through similar environments on several occasions during “The Hobbit,” but the sequences have a noticeably different feel this time around with the hyper-detailed blend of 48fps filming and 3-D presentation. At times, the scenes feel a bit like the cinematic sequences from high-end video games, which often lose a sense of perspective by making every detail in the shot – no matter how far away – crystal clear. The end result is the occasional scene that doesn’t feel entirely real, but isn’t quite digital, either.

Overall, there seems to be a much heavier reliance on CG visuals in “The Hobbit” than in the “The Lord of the Rings” movies, with many of the film’s villains relying heavily on digital and motion-capture effects instead of on-screen actors in prosthetics and makeup. It’s an unfortunate decision, as the practical effects used in “The Lord of the Rings” provided an extra level of realism in those films that would’ve been even more valuable in the ultra-crisp, 48fps environment of the “Hobbit.”

Despite the reliance on digital effects for so many of the creatures of “The Hobbit,” the actors who do get time in front of the camera provide fantastic performances on par with “The Lord of the Rings” cast. Reprising his role as Gandalf, Ian McKellen proves yet again why he is the definitive version of the character, and Martin Freeman successfully captures all of the timidness of Bilbo Baggins with the necessary hint of the inner strength the adventure brings out in him. Outside of Richard Armitage’s noble and grim-faced Thorin Oakenshield, few of the dwarves receive much solo time in the spotlight (which stays right in line with the novel), though Aidan Turner makes the best of his opportunities as the young dwarf Kili.

Composer Howard Shore also deserves praise for his impressive interpretations of the lyrics that Tolkien scattered throughout The Hobbit – especially his haunting spin on the dwarves’ fireside ode to their long-lost kingdom, “Misty Mountains.” Tolkien was known for peppering both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with song lyrics and poems, and much like the 1977 animated feature based on The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t disappoint in giving audiences the music of Middle-earth.

Despite all of its flaws (and there are quite a few of them), “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” manages to be a very enjoyable film that remains loyal to the tone of the books without becoming a literal, scene-by-scene narrative. There’s no shortage of scenes that feel padded out to span the three-film arc Jackson has planned, but as the big-screen adaptation of a children’s story that had some dark undertones, “An Unexpected Journey” is a success.

The story of The Hobbit has always been its own creature, written for an audience 20 years younger than The Lord of the Rings readers, and envisioned as a far more innocent, playful tale. With this adaptation, Jackson seems keenly aware of the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and instead of trying to make one more like the other, he embraces what makes each story unique. “An Unexpected Journey” may not be the greatest adventure on Middle-earth, but it does make for a great theater experience.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arrives in theaters Friday, December 14.

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Holiday Extra Special

Make The Holidays ’80s Again

Enjoy the holiday cheer Wednesday December 21 at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Whatever happened to the kind of crazy-yet-cozy holiday specials that blanketed the early winter airwaves of the 1980s? Unceremoniously killed by infectious ’90s jadedness? Slow fade out at the hands of early-onset millennial ennui? Whatever the reason, nixing the tradition was a huge mistake.

A huge mistake that we’re about to fix.

Announcing IFC’s Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special, starring Tony Hale. It’s a celeb-studded extravaganza in the glorious tradition of yesteryear featuring Bridget Everett, Jo Firestone, Nick Thune, Jen Kirkman, house band The Dap-Kings, and many more. And it’s at Joe’s Pub, everyone’s favorite home away from home in the Big Apple.

The yuletide cheer explodes Wednesday December 21 at 10P. But if you were born after 1989 and have no idea what void this spectacular special is going to fill, sample from this vintage selection of holiday hits:

Andy Williams and The NBC Kids Search For Santa

The quintessential holiday special. Get snuggly and turn off your brain. You won’t need it.

A Muppet Family Christmas

The Fraggles. The Muppets. The Sesame Street gang. Fate. The Jim Henson multiverse merges in this warm and fuzzy Holiday gathering.

Julie Andrews: The Sound Of Christmas

To this day a foolproof antidote to holiday cynicism. It’s cheesy, but a good cheese. In this case an Alpine Gruyère.

Star Wars Holiday Special

Okay, busted. This one was released in 1978. Still totally ’80s though. And yes that’s Bea Arthur.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pass the eggnog, and make sure it’s loaded. This special is everything you’d expect it to be and much, much more.

Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special premieres Wednesday December 21 at 10P on IFC.

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It Ain't Over Yet

A Guide to Coping with the End of Comedy Bang! Bang!

Watch the final episodes tonight at 11 and 11:30P on IFC.

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After five seasons and 110 halved-hour episodes, Scott Aukerman’s hipster comedy opus, Comedy Bang! Bang!, has come to an end. Fridays at 11 and 11:30P will never be the same. We know it can be hard for fans to adjust after the series finale of their favorite TV show. That’s why we’ve prepared this step-by-step guide to managing your grief.

Step One: Cry it out

It’s just natural. We’re sad too.
Scott crying GIF

Step Two: Read the CB!B! IMDB Trivia Page

The show is over and it feels like you’ve lost a friend. But how well did you really know this friend? Head over to Comedy Bang! Bang!’s IMDB page to find out some things you may not have known…like that it’s “based on a Civil War battle of the same name” or that “Reggie Watts was actually born with the name Theodore Leopold The Third.”

Step Three: Listen to the podcast

One fascinating piece of CB!B! trivia that you might not learn from IMDB is that there’s a podcast that shares the same name as the TV show. It’s even hosted by Scott Aukerman! It’s not exactly like watching the TV show on a Friday night, but that’s only because each episode is released Monday morning. If you close your eyes, the podcast is just like watching the show with your eyes closed!

Step Four: Watch brand new CB!B! clips?!

The best way to cope with the end of Comedy Bang! Bang! is to completely ignore that it’s over — because it’s not. In an unprecedented move, IFC is opening up the bonus CB!B! content vault. There are four brand new, never-before-seen sketches featuring Scott Aukerman, Kid Cudi, and “Weird Al” Yankovic ready for you to view on the IFC App. There’s also one right here, below this paragraph! Watch all four b-b-bonus clips and feel better.

Binge the entire final season, plus exclusive sketches, right now on the IFC app.

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Everybody Sweats Now

The Four-Day Sweatsgiving Weekend On IFC

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This long holiday weekend is your time to gobble gobble gobble and give heartfelt thanks—thanks for the comfort and forgiveness of sweatpants. Because when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing more wholesome and American than stuffing yourself stupid and spending endless hours in front of the TV in your softest of softests.

So get the sweats, grab the remote and join IFC for four perfect days of entertainment.

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It all starts with a 24-hour T-day marathon of Rocky Horror Picture Show, then continues Friday with an all-day binge of Stan Against Evil.

By Saturday, the couch will have molded to your shape. Which is good, because you’ll be nestled in for back-to-back Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

Finally, come Sunday it’s time to put the sweat back in your sweatpants with The Shining, The Exorcist, The Chronicles of Riddick, Terminator 2, and Blade: Trinity. They totally count as cardio.

As if you need more convincing, here’s Martha Wash and the IFC&C Music Factory to hammer the point home.

The Sweatsgiving Weekend starts Thursday on IFC

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