Sharp Hobbit

Due to my health issues I was unable to watch the first The Hobbit movie in cinema last year (but ever since enjoyed it on DVD), so it was pretty neat to be able to catch the second part on the big screen. So it was this Saturday afternoon when I went to see it with my brother.

One of the big criticisms everywhere is that Peter Jackson would be forcibly stretching out things into 3 movies based on a single volume book with just 300 pages. Yeah, but then what? Most people forget that this thin book covers a journey that is something like 2 years long! Specific to the second part the endless wandering through Mirkwood alone could fill a movie, the dwarves actually stay several days or even weeks with Beorn, while the dwarves are incarcerated Bilbo wanders around the Wood Elves‘ palace for several weeks before he actually gets a chance to snatch the keys and finally the climb up to the secret door plays out completely differently in the book, also lasting weeks. In typical Tolkien fashion many of those long periods are just single sentences in the book (along the lines of “This happened day after day…”). So in all fairness, even if you were strictly sticking to the book, you’d have plenty of time to cover. Now of course all this could be endlessly boring and, which is almost genius, instead Mr. Jackson fills in those parts with his own story bits.

This is where things get interesting. Most obviously and much discussed already is the introduction of this whole Tauriel and Legolas thing. If you are still skeptical I have to say it plays out wonderfully. Not so much for the romance factor, but it lightens the mood in a very grim section of the film. Another part are the fights, skirmishes and battles. It’s evident that PJ loves to kill a few goblins and there seems no end to creative decapitations and other hijinx. Bombur turning into a steamroller and then looking like a battle tank in his fractured barrel had the whole cinema in laughs. It’s utterly ridiculous and unrealistic, but works surprisingly well in favor of the movie. Other story changes are less apparent, but you will notice them when you see them. Overall a very satisfying experience.

From a technical side there is of course this 48 fps HFR thing. I’m still not convinced it’s the best of ideas just like back then even if,  as you may read elsewhere, the quality has improved considerably compared to the first part. It just looks too sharp and while this may help the 3D, you really lose that cinematic feel and feel like watching a TV show. My brother also had considerable stress on his eyes and needed to take of the 3D goggles a couple of times for relief. More often than not the HFR also gives away how a specific shot was constructed. You simply can see the differences between set pieces shot in a studio, on location shooting, CG and all the elaborate comping, though you are never quite sure which is which. You also end up seeing annoying little details that went wrong, be it just a few hairs in Gandalf‘s beard misbehaving.

While I would love to say that the CG was top-notch, this time it was not, perhaps also owing to too many details being revealed under HFR. There were many situations where it looked just fake. Those were not the big central pieces like Smaug, but often stuff like the flames on an orc’s torch looking all too simulated, the tapestries in the mountain hall falling too unrealistically , the liquid gold splashes looking too crude and so on. Perhaps Peter Jackson this time pushed the production deadline too far until the last day – we may find out in the extended edition’s commentaries one day.

There were also a few disappointing design decisions like the forest spiders looking and behaving too much like “ordinary” spiders (in the book they act much more like an organized hive and are much more varied in size, age and behavior) or Gandalf‘s defense against the Necromancer (I’d have to look it up, but I believe in the book they never actually call him Sauron unlike Gandalf does after the fight; one of those “movie mistakes” IMO) being just a simple light sphere and the evil spirit itself being a bunch of black  smoke. I think some role playing games have more extravagant spell animations these days. What also irked me slightly was Smaug‘s head looking a bit too much like a cross-breed between a Velociraptor and a T-Rex. I don’t know, but is it just me or is every dragon or monster like Godzilla taking a few clues too many from Jurassic Park? It would be nice to see a little more exploration of alternatives in that department.

Don’t let my comments distract you too much, though. Overall the movie is far and above any reproach. You can take a long time looking through your movie collection to find something similar (except for the original Lord of the Rings movies, of course). Gorgeous visuals like Eribor itself or even Dol Guldur will have you sitting in awe and the story packs a punch without leaving you too much room to feel bored. If the last movie is just as spectacular, we’ll be in for a crazy ride end of this year and no matter how you see it, then latest you will wish there were 4 movies instead of only 3. But you never know… Given how crazy popular the books have become thanks to the movies and how much money they make, we could always be getting more. there’s so much still left to explore in the Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion it could well be made into another handful of films.

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