The ballad of Bilbo Baggins


I’m sure that what the blogosphere needs right now is yet another person weighing in on the 48fps version of The Hobbit, but I’m feeling the need for a rant because it was that bad, so forgive me. I’ll have some more interesting end-of-2012 content soon.

I haven’t really read up much on people’s opinions of the 48fps thing – nor have I even read any reviews of The Hobbit. The only things I had heard about it were a) it made some people feel travel sick, b) it made some of the props look rubbish and c) it made some things look super-crisp. So my expectations of it were that it would just be like HD and probably not all that dissimilar to IMAX. I was a bit nervous about the travel sickness thing but other than that I went in with an open mind.

I suppose I should add a couple of qualifiers first of all. Firstly, I’m not big on fantasy. I’ve never read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, nor do I intend to, because I imagine they’d be super-boring and annoying. I do play D&D sporadically but beyond that, it’s just not my genre. Secondly, I’m not much of a one for film gimmickry. I have only seen three, possibly four, films that I thought were worth being filmed in 3D: Avatar, Prometheus (which looked just stunning in 3D IMAX) and Hugo – possibly also Life of Pi, but I suspect that will also look good in 2D. The first three of those have two things in common: 1) the plots weren’t up to much but the visuals compensated for that somewhat 2) the 3D was used as a storytelling/cinematography element rather than a pure gimmick.

Despite not being a fantasy fan, I watched all three Lord of the Rings films at the cinema and whilst they all dragged a lot and had boring places, they were visually stunning enough to captivate me in places. I was expecting The Hobbit to look even more glorious, given it’s several years since the first trilogy came out. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to look like cheap 90s television.

Seriously, it reminded me of so many TV shows: the opening sequence was like the most meandering episode of Knightmare you’ve ever seen, the fantasy sequences like The Box of Delights or the BBC Narnia serials but with less convincing green-screen, the scenes in Bilbo’s house were like the Vicar of Dibley with less Vaseline on the lens, the scenes in the forest like a gag-lite episode of Maid Marian and her Merry Men, and the shire, which looked like Teletubby land in the first trilogy looked even more like that this time around. The special effects looked so awful in several places that lots of people in the cinema were laughing, including me. These had to be the worst effects I’ve seen in the past twenty years or so, including on TV. And some of the props were so clearly polystyrene it was just daft. The worst offender in this case being a ‘rock’ Gandalf splits.

The whole cheap look of the thing also gives you a feeling of detachment from what’s going on. I’m no expert in cinematography, but there is something about the usual gloss of film that helps you get lost in the world on screen – this just doesn’t happen in this film and as such it’s very hard to care, because you’re just not being drawn in in the same way. That lack of engrossment only serves to highlight how boring and drawn-out parts of it are – not all of it, I grant you, but the travelling, battles and scenes in the shire are dull as dishwater and I suspect they would be much better if they looked prettier. (It would also be much better if it were an hour shorter. Very little actually happens.) There are some terrible, terrible jokes in it, which also add to the feeling of watching a slightly rubbish sitcom.)

(It’s not all bad – Bilbo and Gollum is a great sequence even though it doesn’t look right; likewise Galadriel’s coversation with Gandalf is good and some of the scenes with the dwarves are exciting, especially their affecting song. Sylvester McCoy is a lot of fun, too.)

I will concede that a small number of sequences – 5-10% possibly – look good. This has a lot to do with lighting. The dwarves singing in the light of the fire; Galadriel and co talking with the sunset behind them, the sun rising over Rivendell… and that’s about it.

I didn’t feel especially travel sick, except in the spinny camera sequences, but spinny camera sequences tend to have that effect on me anyway, especially when combined with 3D which used to make me want to hurl when it first came out. The 3D isn’t very well used – it falls prey to that trick a lot of films have of chucking birds and butterflies at you every now and then even though they have no plot purpose (also: the CGI/animatronic animals are bloody awful – if you watch the Life of Pi, you will see how well they can be done – though even that has some clunkers, like the fish).

Maybe I’m judging the new technology too harshly. The first 3D films were lousy – sick-inducing and making scant use of the technology, although I don’t think that many of them since have been much to write home about. Likewise, a lot of early HD stuff looked stupid and some of it still does, especially conversions from SD – Friends is the worst I’ve ever seen, and the HD version of Friends reminds me a lot of the 48fps Hobbit – it looks cheap and weird and detached and plain wrong.

I’m definitely going to watch the second one in 2D but I’m worried now that the 2D will look just as bad. If it does, the third one isn’t going to be high on my priority list. Peter Jackson might think this is the future.

Sometimes the past is just better.


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