How I Met Your Mithrandir

The Hobbit is really just an excuse for Peter Jackson and his pals to spend a few more years hanging out in Middle Earth. I don’t see how anybody could have a problem with that.

It’s been several years since I’ve read The Hobbit, so I can’t remember what was in the story and what was embellished, borrowed from The Silmarillion or passages from The Lord of the Rings, or invented outright. What I do remember, though, is that there wasn’t enough material in the book for three movies at three hours a piece.

Before I saw An Unexpected Journey, I said that stretching a simple story into an epic was pure self-indulgence on Peter Jackson’s part. Or even worse, a crass attempt to cash in on the Lord of the Rings success three more times. Or a hollow attempt to get some of that magic back, trying to get lobsters back into the pot.

After getting to spend another three hours in The Shire and various parts of Middle Earth, and looking forward to doing it again for the next two years, I think I should never have let myself turn into such a grouch. It’s absolutely transparent that they’re stretching a children’s story out to epic length just for the sake of spending more time in cool places with actors and crew that they like. And how could anybody think that’s a bad thing? You just have to see the wide (and completely unnecessary) shot of Bilbo running through all of Hobbitton to realize of course they built it just to get to play around in it again, and anybody else with a few Academy Awards and production company money would’ve done exactly the same thing.

While the novel formed the basis of The Lord of the Rings, the movie’s made in full-on prequel mode: fully aware of what’s going to happen in the “bigger” story, and what everything in The Hobbit is building up to. An Unexpected Journey starts just before the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring and has Bilbo recounting the story of his adventures to Frodo. It stays close to the events of the novel — at least as far as I remember — but seems less interested in telling the story of The Hobbit as meandering through the places that we didn’t get to see more of during the last three movies. Again, I’m definitely not an expert on Tolkien, but I don’t remember so much time spent with Radagast the Brown, or an ominous and foreshadowing discussion with Galadriel and Elrond at Rivendell.

And it’s actually pretty great that we get to see that. In The Lord of the Rings, the screenwriters had to be very economical with the material, cutting stuff that seemed unnecessary, or moving people and events around for the sake of each movie having an arc and coming in under three hours running time. Here, it’s the opposite. We get detailed, action-packed flashbacks to battles that would otherwise be mentioned in passing. Bits of lore and back-story get elevated from supplemental material to being included in the main plot. And we get to see brilliantly imaginative details, like Radagast’s team of rabbits, or the fantastic courier to the Goblin King. In a way, it’s a chance to see all the stuff we never would have otherwise, a kind of Filmarillion.

Since it’s being done as a prequel series, I would’ve expected everything to center on Bilbo’s finding the One Ring. And while it’s not the climactic moment of An Unexpected Journey, it is the highlight of the entire movie. The riddle contest plays out in full, and the work done on Gollum is absolutely flawless. (Even more than the Smeagol/Gollum argument in The Two Towers, which at the time was the best motion-captured animation could ever get, I thought). The expressions on his face as he struggles to come up with the answer to a riddle, or his panic when he discovers he’s lost the ring, make you completely forget that it’s an animated character.

But it’s just one scene of many. The story is structured not so much like an epic fantasy tale, as an 80s movie about the wacky misadventures of a lovable bunch of misfits, crossed with a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. There’s not really a clear progression, just a series of seemingly random encounters, each of which culminates in a bunch of dwarves falling on top of each other. Through the whole thing, you spend time with Martin Freeman — who I’ve realized is actually impossible not to like — and a bunch of genuinely pleasant actors, including the vampire from Being Human who’s nice to look at. Every once in a while, they’ll remember they’re in an epic fantasy tale, and someone (usually Thorin Oakenshield) will face the camera and say something dramatic and foreboding, and then quickly they all resume stabbing and/or stumbling.

Before the movie, every review I’d read had a problem with that, so I’d gone in expecting to be a little disappointed. More than one reviewer took advantage of the pseudo-pun of calling it “middling.” It was supposedly meandering and directionless. I say it’s supposed to be meandering — not because it doesn’t know where it’s going or because it’s stretching its material too thin, but because it’s savoring every moment it gets to spend in such a fantastic place.

I loved it, and I’m already making arrangements for how many times I’m going to see it again, and how often I need to space the viewings apart. At least one of the times is going to be in the new high frame rate mode — every reviewer who saw it in that mode said it was jarring, but they were wrong about the movie itself so maybe they’re wrong about that as well. I saw it in IMAX 3D (and the 3D was well done, incidentally), and there were several scenes I found myself wanting to see in the creepy hyper-clarity of 48 fps.

I guess ultimately, my opinion of the high frame rate version is pretty much the same as my opinion of the movie itself. Even if you treat it just as an experiment, it’s fantastic that it’s out there. One account said that the higher frame rate made it difficult to be immersed in the story, and made it feel like being on a film set. But who has seen these movies and not wanted to hang out on the film sets? Clearly, everyone involved in making the Lord of the Rings movies wanted to, and for the next three Christmases, they’re inviting the rest of us to join in.

5 thoughts on “How I Met Your Mithrandir”

  1. It is interesting that fan wars break out when video games drop below 60fps and are generally considered “broken” at that point, and yet movies finds it tough now to move past old 24fps. I kind of understand the argument that news and sports have left us with some impression that 60fps is for “real video”, but then video games broke that trend ages ago, if nothing else. It’s particularly relevant now because studies keep showing that many people has less/no visual fatigue when watching 3D at 48 or 60fps versus what they experience at 24fps. James Cameron certainly thinks it is one of the few excuses remaining keeping large audiences from watching every film in 3D…

  2. One form the complaints are taking, at least from the more savvy film reviewers who are aware that Video Games Exist, is that the movie in HFR looks too much like a video game. Games intentionally go for that kind of clarity, like you say, since most games try for that hyper-clarity of complete “you are there” immersion. (And, of course, games aren’t yet great at doing motion blur consistently, since it’s something that has to be explicitly implemented).

    It really highlights that the complaints about HFR are just making it explicit that moviegoers don’t want reality — hand-held cameras, first-person views, and all the other pseudo-documentary stylistic tics seem more like artifice than reality, since the language of film is already established and accepted implicitly.

    The other interesting thing is that I’ve read people who grew up in the UK, or watched a lot of British programming growing up, have less of a problem with it. American audience — well, me at least — always found it jarring whenever a British show would switch between film and video depending on whether they were indoors or outdoors. I guess if you watch enough of that, it just becomes part of the “language” and doesn’t seem particularly odd to see fiction playing out at video frame rates.

    I hadn’t heard about the visual fatigue argument; that’s interesting. I do know that whenever I’ve seen Avatar playing on one of those fancy motion-smoothing TVs at Best Buy, I absolutely hate it.

  3. I figured the best way to see this was with all the bells & whistles, so I skipped a free screening at 24fps 3D and paid full price for 48fps Real3D with Dolby ATMOS (there aren’t any theaters in LA with IMAX 3D & ATMOS). I’d like to see some of it at 24fps to see if it holds up any better but I can’t see watching the whole thing again. I hope you see it at 48fps because I would be interested to hear what someone who loved the movie thought of the format.

    To me, the problem with HFR wasn’t that it was too much like reality, but that the makeup and acting and special effects all looked chintzy. Not chintzy in the “you BBC guys really did a bad job cutting film and video together” kind of way, or even in the “what have you done to Avatar you awful Best Buy employee” way, but more in the “you really did not deliver that line well and it’s impossible to take you seriously” way. It reminded me of when news first started broadcasting in HD and the makeup was still done with SD in mind–but apply that to acting and effects as well. Or it’s like seeing a stage performance from the front row, when the actor is playing to the middle of the theater (or a theater actor appearing on film for the first time) — things are more exaggerated than they need to be to come across. Or, to be even more precise, it’s like the first time you see a film print of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars and the matte lines are suddenly very visible. It’s not that it felt “too real” but that its fakeness was obvious. It didn’t remind me of a video game at all, really, because with video games the problem is on the other slope of the uncanny valley.

    Freeman’s performance is understated enough that it still worked, and Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee are great even when chewing scenery. (And Blanchett & Gollum still work). But the dwarves! And the battle scenes, where lots of extras have to look like they’re fighting — I was very aware of it as choreography, the skin tones of the creatures didn’t look right (and I had plenty of time to notice this), you could see blows not connecting (the way fights in behind-the-scenes footage of stuntwork looks fake and you can’t believe it will look real on film until it does). Anyway, I couldn’t suspend disbelief. (With the exception of the dragon attack at the very beginning, although most other people seem to have more problems with the beginning before they get used to the frame rate.)

    The ATMOS mix was a whole lot of nothing, at least from our seats in the fourth row (but in a theater where that row is reasonably far from the screen). There were only a few points where it seemed noticeably different than a standard surround mix and it was mostly jarring — they placed the troll’s voices in space, for example, which just made you very aware of the fact that the scene was cut together from footage of cameras at different locations, because it was sort of “The troll is over here! Now he’s over here, abruptly! And now he’s over here! All without moving!” (And stuff where it should have been great, like the rainstorm, it just didn’t do much at all.) In places where it could have been interesting, like the flying boulders, the sound coming from the front speakers and the subwoofers was so loud that anything going on in the surrounds was completely drowned out.

    Slower scenes and shots — Freeman waking up, the riddles, worked better for me with high frame rate, and it did feel more like I was actually seeing the actor and so I’d like to see a different kind of movie made in the format, because the costumes, the makeup, the fight scenes, and the special effects all seemed to suffer the most. Which is to say that this seems like exactly the wrong movie to make most people’s first experience of 48fps. Of course, apparently people like that motion-smoothing stuff on their TVs, so who knows. Anyway, I’d love to know what you thought of the 48fps version, as you are more likely to see that than I am to see it in 24fps.

  4. It’ll be Christmas at least before I can see the 48fps version, but I can already tell that it’s not going to make as dramatic a difference for me as it would for you, since I think I watch these movies differently than most people. All the Peter Jackson Tolkein movies have an inherent corniness that I just accept implicitly — it’s how Return of the King can paradoxically be one of my favorite movies of all time and have a scene with a bunch of hobbits frolicking on a bed in slow motion.

    There’s a promoted forum post on The Verge today that seems to make the same basic argument you’re making, that the higher frame rate requires more subtle performances, make-up, and effects. I’m inclined to think that with something like The Hobbit, the goal isn’t quite immersion but spectacle. I never felt like I was supposed to be suspending my disbelief.

    Maybe the Lord of the Rings movies would’ve been better for this than The Hobbit, since the former is combining stilted epic fantasy with an action movie, while the latter is combining stilted epic fantasy with slapstick. I’d have to see what you mean by “a different type of movie” being better suited to the format; something more prosaic would have absolutely no appeal at all; that’s basically just video. The whole appeal of seeing the movie again in 48fps is seeing places like Rivendell in greater clarity, and effects like Gollum interacting with a human. Maybe something that’s already a “cleaner” and more artificial setting than Middle Earth? During the trailers I found myself wondering how the new Star Trek and the new sci fi movie with Tom Cruise would look like in the higher frame rate, since they’d be combining special effects spectacle with more sterile environments.

  5. Well, I like Return of the King, so maybe “suspend disbelief” is the wrong phrase–I think it makes the spectacle harder to appreciate. I promise you that I went into the theater ready to overlook the inherent corniness of Middle Earth. You do see Rivendell in greater clarity, but you also see all the costumes and props and makeup and choreography in greater clarity and it destroys some of the illusion. Main point is, for me, it wasn’t that HFR was “too real” or “too clear,” it’s that what was on screen hadn’t caught up with the framerate. (3D’s a whole different issue.) Anyway, I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of the format once you’ve seen it.

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