“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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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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