Release Date(s)2012 (March 19, 2013)
Studio(s)New Line/MGM/Wingnut Films (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: C+
When Peter Jackson completed his successful film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books, it seemed almost inevitable that a film version of The Hobbit would follow. But success has a tendency to complicate matters in Hollywood and, as things happen when large sums of money are on the line, difficulties quickly arose. There were rights conflicts, studio financial problems, multiple legal disputes, delays in green-lighting that cost the involvement of original director Guillermo del Toro and even labor disputes with the film unions in New Zealand and Hollywood. Again and again the problems appeared, only to be surmounted with great time and effort. Ultimately, it was revealed that Peter Jackson would return to direct, that there would be three films in all, that many of the original Rings cast members would return to reprise their roles as needed and that the production would shoot digitally in 5K resolution – not just in 3D but at 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the traditional 24 fps of standard theatrical film. But how would it look on the big screen? How would Tolkien fans react to their beloved book being adapted into three films?
Certainly, there have been controversies. When a lucky few cinema geeks got their first early look at 48 fps 3D test footage from the film, something of an uproar developed on the Internet. Reactions ranged from “It looked amazing – like really being there!” to “Oh my God, it’s terrible – Jackson has ruined everything!” Jackson hastily assured unsettled fans that the footage was only preliminary and that it hadn’t been fully processed and polished, but still a dark shadow crept through the Internet like the second coming of Sauron. Matters were made worse as Tolkien fans worried about Jackson’s (and co-conspirators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) plan to incorporate elements from the Rings films and specifically from the Appendices of The Return of the King into The Hobbit storyline to bring them into greater narrative alignment – something Jackson has correctly insisted Tolkien himself attempted to do before he died. So would it all work? Could The Lord of the Rings magic strike once again? Well… despite somewhat mixed critical reviews the first film in this new trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, would go on to earn more than $1 billion in worldwide box office, which must have quickly reassured Warner Bros. that they (and Jackson) had made the right choices.
Though this is intended to be a review of the regular Blu-ray only (a Blu-ray 3D review will follow), I feel I should comment on the issue of 48 fps and High Frame Rate 3D before I continue on. I’ve now seen this film four times, three in HFR 3D theatrically and once in 2D on Blu-ray for this review. My personal feeling is that while 3D isn’t required to fully enjoy the film, a proper HFR (48 fps) viewing does enhance it significantly. Unfortunately, finding a proper HFR showing is a very hit or miss affair. The first screening I saw was HFR via XpanD 3D active shutter glasses in a Cinépolis luxury theater… and it was absolutely terrible. Not only was I unable to appreciate the difference 48 fps makes, the active shutter glasses gave me a terrible headache about an hour into the film. My second viewing of HFR 3D was via IMAX 3D with polarized glasses and it was only marginally better. I was able to enjoy the film this time at least, but my seat was in the far back corner of the theater and so the 3D effect was compromised (yes, your location within the theater can alter your experience of the 3D effect as intended by the filmmakers). Fortunately, I got lucky in my last attempt – an HFR 3D screening in one of Regal’s RPX theaters, powered by polarized RealD 3D glasses. It was without a doubt the best 3D I’ve ever seen. The depth in the image was jaw-dropping. Finally, I understood the advantages of that higher refresh rate – smooth, flicker-free action with no ghosting. HFR lends an immediacy to the image, an extra measure of realism and immersion, that I really enjoyed. (Note that 48 fps is closer to 60 fps, which is very roughly the equivalent of what the human eye sees in reality.) So why didn’t everyone appreciate it as much as I did? Here’s the surprising truth: No two theaters are going to give you exactly the same 3D experience. IMAX, RealD, Dolby, XpanD – each of these systems delivers a slightly different 3D image presentation. Add to that the fact that digital projectors must be precisely calibrated to deliver 3D accurately (in a world in which most digital theaters don’t even have experienced projectionists on staff anymore) and you begin to see the problem. I say all this because many viewers’ impressions of this film are directly tied to the quality of the 3D they experienced in theaters that first time – and those experiences were wildly uneven. I think to properly appreciate The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it’s important to give it a fair viewing without 3D. Thankfully, Blu-ray provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.
An Unexpected Journey begins with Bilbo Baggins as we first saw him in the Shire, played by Ian Holm. Early on the morning of his “eleventy-first” birthday celebration (depicted in Fellowship of the Ring), he’s working on his book so that Frodo will know the truth of his past adventures. As he writes, Bilbo recounts the fall of the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor, overrun years earlier by the dragon Smaug for its great riches of gold and jewels. He’s briefly interrupted by Frodo (Elijah Woods in a cameo), who rushes off to meet Gandalf. Then we flash back some 60 years to see the very first meeting of a younger Bilbo (now played by Martin Freeman of Sherlock and U.K. Office fame) and the Gray Wizard (played once more by Ian McKellen). Bilbo learns that the grandson of the former King of Erebor, Thorin Oakenshield, has assembled a party of Dwarves to reclaim the kingdom from Smaug, but they need a burglar… and Gandalf has recommended Bilbo for the job. At the very last moment, Bilbo – who secretly yearns for adventure – accepts, and so begins the journey. But the “Lonely Mountain” of Erebor is a long way off and, unknown to the Dwarves, there are those in Middle-Earth who would see that they never arrive.
Clocking in at 169 minutes, there’s no doubt that An Unexpected Journey is a long film. While that wasn’t a problem with The Fellowship of the Ring (slightly longer at 178 minutes), the key issue here is that the Rings films deal with the weightiest of matters – a fight to literally prevent the End of All Things – while The Hobbit is essentially a light-hearted children’s novel about young Bilbo Baggins’ first big adventure. The evil presence that drives Fellowship and its two sequels just isn’t there yet in the original story, so it has to be contrived by the filmmakers. This then, is why Jackson and company have worked so hard to tie the two trilogies together. As we eventually learn in An Unexpected Journey, the first signs of Sauron’s eventual return have begun to appear. The ghostly Witch-king of Angmar has returned to the world of the living, summoned by a mysterious “Necromancer” hiding in the ancient fortress of Dul Goldur. Other vile creatures too have begun to appear, including giant spiders, Orcs and Trolls – creatures that have not dared to venture into the light since Sauron was defeated. When the Dwarves’ company arrives at Rivendell, and Gandalf reveals what he’s learned to Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman (all played once more by familiar actors from the Rings films), it’s clear that Gandalf and Galadriel suspect something is up… and that Saruman is either clueless or already working to assist the Dark Lord. The rest of the film sees Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves encountering (and escaping) one adversary after another. Of course, we also see Bilbo’s infamous encounter with Gollum and his not accidental discovery of The One Ring. By the time the film ends, Erebor is at last in sight on the horizon, and the threat of Smaug looms darkly ahead. Yes, this film is mostly light-hearted and light on story. Yes, Gandalf appears again and again to save the company from certain doom. And yes, it’s more than a little implausible that there are no casualties. Still, these are all aspects (some would say dramatic flaws) of the original novel. Jackson does his best to overcome them with frequent humor, relentless action and the occasionally revealed hint of evils yet to come. An Unexpected Journey is not a great film, and it’s certainly not as good as Fellowship. But it is a good film and it’s one that I’ve enjoyed a little more with each new viewing.
Disc One of Warner’s new Blu-ray release includes the film alone in full 1080/24p resolution (2.35:1 aspect ratio), down-converted from the original Redcode RAW 5K/48 fps digital master. Those concerned with the possibility of any unusual artifacting from the down-conversion need not worry – the result is simply stunning. This is without doubt one of the best live action presentations I’ve ever seen on the Blu-ray format, obviously benefitting from the original image’s capture in 5K resolution. Colors are rich, glowing and pop off the screen, just as you’d expect based on the work of Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie on the previous films, as well as their past highly-stylized and “fantastical” color grading choices. Better still, detail is absolutely splendid at all times, with highly refined textures and crisp, clean edges. The image has a lovely “filmic” look that matches well with the extended edition Blu-rays of the previous Rings films – there’s perhaps just a hair more detail here. Sonically, the Blu-ray’s English DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix delivers in spades as well with a big wide soundstage, smooth and natural imaging and highly-immersive surround play that never fails to draw you into the action on screen. When this mix thunders, you’ll feel it in the seat of your pants if you’ve got a good surround set-up. Dialogue is clear throughout the film and Howard Shore’s engaging score envelops you in rich tones and sweeping themes, some all-new while others clearly recall similar passages from the Rings film scores. Audio is also available in French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles available in those three languages as well as English captions (for the hearing impaired). From an A/V standpoint, this disc is very tough to beat.
All of this set’s extras are contained on Disc Two, which is also a Blu-ray. It begins with the New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth featurette (6:35 – essentially a promotional video for New Zealand tourism, but it’s all from the perspective of the filmmakers and cast, with much behind-the-scenes footage) and it continues with an archive of all 10 Hobbit Video Blogs from the official site (some 127 minutes in all – including Start of Production: April 14, 2011, Location Scouting: July 9, 2011, Shooting Block One: July 21, 2011, Filming in 3D: November 4, 2011, Locations Part 1: December 24, 2011, Locations Part 2: March 2, 2012, Stone St. Studios Tour: June 6, 2012, Wrap of Principal Photography: July 24, 2012, Post-Production Overview: November 24, 2012 and Wellington World Premiere: December 14, 2012). All of this is in full HD and if you’ve been following the online site you know that it’s all good material and fun, if not exactly comprehensive or in-depth. Still, you get to see lots of very nice moments behind-the-scenes on the production. The remainder of the extras include 6 theatrical trailers for the film in HD (Trailer 1 and multiple versions of Trailer 3 including Dwarves, Letter Opener, Bilbo Contract, Gandalf Wagers and Gollum Paths) and 3 videogame trailers (for The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-Earth, Guardians of Middle-Earth and LEGO The Lord of the Rings – also in HD but highly compressed). If there’s an Easter egg here, I have yet to find it. The extras are all in English as you’d expect, but optional subtitles are available in French, Spanish and Portuguese along with English captions (again for the hearing impaired – a nice touch). Note that a DVD copy of the film is also included in the package (anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio – no extras), as is a download code for an UltraViolet digital copy. It’s also worth noting that those who purchase the Blu-ray gain exclusive access (through a URL and a special code) to a live online preview of The Desolation of Smaug hosted by Jackson set for 3/24/13 (at 3 PM Eastern). An edited version of this event will be available for viewing on the official website at a later date.
At the very least, An Unexpected Journey manages to be a mostly enjoyable (if light and overlong) return to the cinematic world of Middle-Earth, and a solid launching point for this new Hobbit trilogy. My own feelings about the film will ultimately rest in large measure on the success the sequels to follow, The Desolation of Smaug (coming to theaters this Christmas) and There and Back Again (set for 2014) – specifically how well they continue and build upon the story here. It’s worth noting that (as was the case with the earlier Rings films) an extended cut of A Unexpected Journey will arrive on Blu-ray and DVD later this year. I somehow doubt that more footage will make this film any better, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong. In any case, given Jackson’s nearly complete success with the Rings trilogy, I’m willing to trust that he knows what he’s doing. I’ll wait… eagerly, I freely admit… to see what comes next.
- Bill Hunt