Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Blu-ray Review

Movie: 7/10

This movie is going to be a tough call for me, as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has elements about it that I liked better than the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, but also elements about it that I felt were worse off as well. Don't get me wrong, its still a joy to return to Middle-earth, and see, in live-action cinematic form, Bilbo's adventures with Gandalf and the company of the 13 dwarves on their journey to reclaim their gold from The Lonely Mountain taken by the dragon Smaug, but if the film had been paced faster and more akin to J.R.R Tolkien's original children's book rather than the long, epic and darker themes of Lord of the Rings trilogy as it is, I'd probably would have enjoyed it more than I actually did, maybe more so than the main Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Let's get one thing out of the way first, I've only read the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can't really compare how the Lord of the Rings films compare to the original books. But in anticipation of the Hobbit film trilogy, I've read The Hobbit book in its entirety, as well as the first chapter of Fellowship, which was included in the book I bought, and its really a simple, fun children's story of Bilbo's adventure with Gandalf and the dwarves, only about 373 pages long, with a little slight foreshadowing of the dark times to come ahead 60 years later in the Lord of the Rings, and I felt that this book would make a good single 3 hour movie, or two-2 hour films. Peter Jackson's film adaptation attempts to fit the events of the Hobbit and tries to tie its links closer to his Lord of the Rings trilogy by adding subplots on how Gandalf, Saruman the White, Lady Galadriel, and Lord Elrond foresee Sauron's return, exactly how I will not mention here. Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond were characters who didn't even appear in the Hobbit book, and I can understand why Peter Jackson included them in this adaptation, but I felt those scenes could have used a little trimming, because really, in this story, the dwarves' quest and Bilbo were the main focus of the novel, and should have been the main focus of this film. But by adding these additional scenes of how the Hobbit ties with Lord of the Rings, and stretching a children's book into a 9-hour adventure, it made the film really bloated and unfocused. In Lord of the Rings these films were long, because the books themselves are already very complex, and even in those films some things need to be left out. But in this film, its like making a short story long, and it felt like I'm watching the Extended Edition already, and I know those scenes were in there for the hardcore LOTR fans, but I felt that a shorter, "theatrical cut" would have made the film more accessible and enjoyable to casual moviegoers who haven't seen Lord of the Rings or read the books, and that tighter paced film would have enticed them to really get into the lore of J.R.R. Tolkien's intriguing high-fantasy universe. Save the "extended scenes" for a proper Extended Edition Cut for the hardcore fans. Oh wait, there is going to be an actual proper Extended Edition cut coming later in November this year, which will add even more to the running time of the actual theatrical cut. Oh boy...

That was my complaint about the film's length. But thankfully the film's main character, Bilbo Baggins, is really the spark here. I find him even more interesting than Frodo in Lord of the Rings. He has a clear and interesting character that changes over the course of the story. He was more interesting than Frodo when I read the book, and here in the film he's aided be a fantastic performance by Martin Freeman. Gandalf is as great as he was in Lord of the Rings, again played magnificently by Ian McKellen, but I noticed in this film Gandalf seem to be a bit more grumpy than he was in LOTR, I don't remember him being that grumpy in the book, but that's just a minor quibble. Even Frodo (Elijah Wood) makes an appearance, which I felt was so unnecessary, I think it was there just there to please the fans. Then why don't they just cut it out of the theatrical cut and reserve it for the extended edition or something? His appearance really serves no purpose in the main story. Its also a bit of a bummer that the 13 dwarves in the company were not that memorable, I can't even remember all of their names, and I've read the book, save for maybe Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader of the dwarves, and besides him, all the dwarves seem to have just a single personality, they seem to be there mainly for comic relief, which makes them hard to really care about during the course of the film. Even the 7 dwarves in Snow White had more distinctive characters and personalities than these 13 dwarves. But again, personally this didn't really bothered me for the majority of this film, as I was fine with some comic relief, which made this film a little bit more light-hearted than the Lord of the Rings. But then again, talking about the pacing, the film was really slow in the first hour setting up these characters that weren't that interesting in the first place, and that got a little grating at the start.

But when the action gets going, it goes pretty well, though admittedly the action isn't as memorable as those in Lord of the Rings. The dwarves want to reclaim their homeland in the Lonely Mountain which is taken over by the dragon Smaug. This is a slight change from the book, which was more about reclaiming their gold, but in this film their goal is made more honourable, that they want a home to live in again. You have the dwarves' interesting encounter with the Stone Trolls, an old grudge between Thorin and an Orc war-chief called Azog, the company fighting orcs and goblins along their journey, the company's pit stop in Rivendell, which is still as beautiful as ever, and so on and so forth. In Rivendell some characters from Lord of the Rings return like Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who again, didn't appear in the book, but are here to bring story elements from Lord of the Rings. Azog the Orc chief didn't play an active part in the book, but I'm guess its brought here in this film so that this film alone can have its own story arc with Thorin and him. It's a story choice that did make the film more draggy, but its understandable. Maybe the other thing they could have done to tighten the pace of this film is to just trim some of the talky scenes by a little bit.

But I think the real reason fans will definitely want to see this film is the return of Gollum (Andy Serkis), and to see him battle Bilbo in a deadly game of riddles. And need I say more? If you loved Gollum's performance in LOTR, you're gonna love him here.

While I enjoyed The Hobbit for the most part, there is an eerie sense of deja vu in some scenes, like they are reintroducing familiar characters like Gandalf or Lord Elrond, or Gollum, you can't help but think that they were already introduced to us before, and that their introductory scenes were much better and memorable in Fellowship of the Ring or the other movies. Also in general, I find that the cinematography and editing in this film, while not bad by any means, is not as impactful or memorable as Fellowship of the Ring. I've also noticed that there is definitely more use of CGI in this film, and it felt needlessly excessive at times. Remember the orcs and Uruk-Hai in Lord of the Rings felt real and fearsome? Because most of them are actual cast members with makeup and prosthetics and carrying real prop swords and weaponry. Here almost all of them are CGI, and somehow the CG action scenes here seems more cartoonish that LOTR. I know that that's the intentional artistic direction for the action scenes in this film to be more cartoonish and light-hearted than LOTR, but at times, the compositing/lighting themselves doesn't look like they blend into the environment as good as having an actual actor or prop in the scene, maybe its because the ambition and quantity of the CGI is much higher than before that the artists didn't have as much time to polish each VFX shot as best as they can. And if there is one aspect of the action scenes in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings than I'm not a fan of, its the excessive use of slow-motion to make scenes more dramatic, and somehow the use of slow-motion in this film is even more excessive and irritating as it slows down the movie even more, one entire flashback scene is entirely in slow-motion, which was more annoying, on top of slowing the whole movie down. For goodness sake, please have these action scenes in regular motion, it'll make them more exciting.

I know there's been a lot of publicity by Peter Jackson promoting about The Hobbit being in 48 frames per second (FPS), marketed commonly as High Frame Rate (HFR). I will say this, I only saw The Hobbit in 24 FPS 3D, so I can't really comment how much this film looks better in 48 FPS. I've heard mixed reaction about the experience, some say the action and detail look smoother, others say that the increased frame rate reveals some of the flaws in makeup and CG, etc., but I do notice that the choice of shooting 48 FPS has affected the 24 FPS presentation a bit, because in 48 FPS there is less motion blur in each frame because naturally the shutter speed of the camera is increased to shoot a higher frame rate, and to convert the film to 24 FPS you have to take out every alternate frame, resulting a 24 FPS film that looks a bit choppier than natively-shot 24 FPS films because it has less motion blur to smoothen out the action. Perhaps I will see Desolation of the Smaug in 48 FPS to see what's the difference. This disc I'm reviewing here is the 2D 24 FPS version. Currently there is no 48 FPS Blu-ray available, and I think its because, to my knowledge, 48 FPS is not currently part of the Blu-ray standard, but whether is it possible to update the 48 FPS standard to the current Blu-ray specification or to use another entirely new disc of TV format entirely, we'll have to see.

Video Quality: 10/10

Even if you have your qualms with the film's length, you can't deny that this disc's 1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks gorgeous. This film is shot digitally with Red Epic cameras from the start unlike LOTR, which was shot on film then went through the digital intermediate process, so being transferred directly from the digital source has its advantages. You would expect that a film like The Hobbit would be highly colour-graded, but the colour-grading job still looks great without losing too much detail in the image. The huge landscapes of Middle-earth (doubled by New Zealand) looks crisp and detailed, shot beautifully by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. Some of the most impressive-looking shots are those extreme long shots of the dwarves and Bilbo traversing the mountains, or the exterior shots of Rivendell. This video transfer will satisfy any LOTR fans/videophiles who would want to watch this disc on the largest screen possible. There is zero significant compression artifacts or aliasing to be found here, but only maybe a minute bit of noise/grain in some of the darker scenes, but only the nit-pickiest of videophiles will complain.  

Audio Quality: 10/10

Perhaps even more amazing that the video transfer is the lossless DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track. But as of this writing, I'm reviewing it in my current 5.1 setup, even though my amplifier is capable of outputting 7.1. But even with just 5.1, this track will amaze plenty of audiophiles like myself. Bass from the LFEs are strong, sometimes used to comical effect like when one of the dwarves is carrying a huge roll of cheese, and his footsteps give a slight "thoomp, thoomp" in the subwoofer. Use of surrounds are also smooth and seamless, like the thunder battle with the rock giants, where you hear rocks flying across the room, and the booming thud as the rock hit the giants' face. Dialogue is crisp and clear even in the battle scenes, dynamic range from soft to loud is also pretty good, albeit the change in volume levels between soft and loud scenes is not as drastic as LOTR, so its quite comfortable to listen to. You'll hear the crisp sound of arrows go "whoosh" across everywhere in the room., and impacting flesh with a nice "squish". Every footsteps of the Trolls hit with a impactful LFE thud.

It should be mentioned that this track sound slightly softer than the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Blu-ray than I have, I had to crank up my amp by +2 dB to get around the same sound level as those discs, and even then, my LOTR discs sound louder and impactful with the lower volume level in the battle scenes, especially in the higher frequency range. 


The special features are all on the second discs and it contains all the video blogs that Peter Jackson published online, and it also contains the trailers of the film, some of the LOTR-related game trailers, and maybe one short documentary exclusive to this disc. I've seen some of the video blogs, some online and some on this discs, its a solid offering, but most of the stuff here you can already see online. But if you buy the holographic version you actually get a 35mm film frame of the film in a card courtesy of Premier Cell, which is pretty cool if you are a hardcore fan of the LOTR film franchise. I'm not sure if the film frames are still available in our local store shelves as of this writing, but the film frames are in limited stock, so grab them while you can.

Overall: 8/10

So there you have it, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is flawed but enjoyable addition to the Lord of the Rings film franchise, I'd personally wished that this film was paced tighter like a children's book that the original book was, but I also understand that the intention to make his Hobbit films link with the Lord of the Rings film is so that the mood of this trilogy and the LOTR trilogy would feel consistent. The main character Bilbo Baggins is certainly more interesting than Frodo Baggins in LOTR, and the main story is simpler to follow, but the pacing and the attempts to make the story more complex than the book did agitate me a little bit, and I'm sure that it may also agitate casual fans of the franchise. If you're a hardcore LOTR fan this disc is a no-brainer purchase, and even if you are just a casual LOTR fan, this disc still comes strongly recommended just to see for yourself how the book is adapted into the Peter Jackson's LOTR universe. Just don't expect this film to reach the same heights as the original LOTR films, and if you find the film's pacing rather slow, you may probably not watch this film more than once. Even if you do watch it once, this disc's breath-taking and immersive video and audio quality will definitely make your experience more pleasant watching it. This is the disc to purchase and keep LOTR fans occupied while they await Desolation of the Smaug...

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