It’s safe to assume that you don’t care one whit what I think of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in terms of its faithfulness to the source, or its strengths and weaknesses as a film in and of itself. You no doubt clicked into this page with your mind fully made up about the film, and wish only to know if this month’s Blu-ray release is worth your coin.
But precedent dictates that I say at least a few words about the film, and I will, although if you simply want to skip to the good stuff, you can click here to be taken directly to my thoughts on the audio-visual presentation and extras below.
For those of you who are interested in my thoughts on this first act of the Hobbit cinematic trilogy for whatever reason, they are complex, hesitant, and mostly unfinished. But on the whole, as a die-hard Tolkien fan, I think things are off to a promising start. In many ways, I think the film successfully achieves one of the Professor’s unfinished goals, which was the updating of The Hobbit to more closely match the tone and narrative of The Lord of the Rings. Of course, he revised the novel several times over the years, re-writing Gollum’s role in Bilbo’s story, making the Elves more consistent with their LotR characterization, and so forth. But the big, all-encompassing ground-up re-write that Tolkien wanted to attempt was abandoned after three chapters because of criticism that the story lost much of its charm and whimsy in the retelling.
Say what you will about Peter Jackson’s decision to expand a 300-page book into three massive films; deride him all you want for the liberties he’s taken with the source material; but in many ways, I think he’s accomplished much of what Tolkien wished to do himself with the story, integrating it more successfully into the mythology of Middle-earth, and making it more consistent with The Lord of the Rings.
But make no mistake about it: this is not Lord of the Rings. While the sequel is one grand, thralling, epic story, told rather stodgingly in textual form, The Hobbit, as a book, is an interconnected series of episodic bedtime stories, brilliantly written with charm and whimsy. To turn that into one cohesive narrative — much less one that had any relation to Lord of the Rings aside from a handful of characters — required a lot more surgery on Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens’ part, much more integration of material from ancillary sources, like the LotR appendices, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth, the latter two of which the screenwriters drew from delicately, since they don’t own cinematic rights to either. Which is a shame, because the most inspired changes to the story are the ones that draw, however coyly, from Tolkien himself.
But despite the changes that Jackson et al had to add in bringing a coherent, cohesive Hobbit narrative to the screen, I ultimately think this is a translation that the Professor would have preferred to the Rings films, because it more overtly integrates so many of the things that were important to him: the philology, the invented history, and most importantly the music. One almost feels that Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens felt the need to add more elements for Tolkien die-hards as preemptive penitence for making so many more sweeping changes to the narrative, and I for one appreciate them — especially little touches, like Galadriel calling Gandalf “Mithrandir” (his Sindarin name), and Gandalf himself forgetting the names of the Blue Wizards — but it does have the effect of giving the film a little less universal appeal. Unlike the Lord of the Rings films, which I feel almost anyone could grok, without ever having read a word of Tolkien, An Unexpected Journey almost feels like it needs footnotes. I watched the film with my best friend — who only knows Tolkien through the original film trilogy — and althouh she squeed in delight at seeing Galadriel and Saruman in the flesh again, she spent a good chunk of the movie glancing over at me as if to ask, “What the deuce is a Rhosgobel rabbit?”
On the other hand, little elements like that only served to make me enjoy the film even more, but more as another chance to immerse myself in the audiovisual splendor of Middle-earth than as a satisfying story. To be frank, I realy won’t have made my mind up about what I think of the film until I see the other two-thirds of it.
My only major complaints, though, which probably won’t change after viewing the second and third films, are few: I did not like the newly redesigned “Gundabad” wargs, which looked far too cartoony in an otherwise verisimilitudinous world, and I would have preferred to see the battle between the Stone Giants left on the cutting room floor, not just in the theatrical cut, but the extended edition, as well.
Speaking of the Extended Edition — we all know it’s coming. And it remains to be seen how much it impacts this film. But one doubts it will be nearly so drastic a change as we saw with The Two Towers, which was a non-sequitur-filled mess of movie-making in its theatrical form, and a real delight once extended. I can certainly imagine a few spots that could be filled out with a little more footage in this film, but there’s nothing here that screams, “Oh, you just missed a deleted scene,” as was the case with The Two Towers and, to a lesser degree, Return of the King and Fellowship of the Ring.
In this case, I imagine the Expanded Edition of An Unexpected Journey will serve more to deliver richer an more rewarding supplemental material, which is rather lacking in this theatrical release, but more on that in a moment.
How does The Hobbit look and sound?
Although Warner only sent along the 2D release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there’s quite a bit to say about the video presentation, even without exploring the third dimension. Of course, the Blu-ray presents the 24fps version of the film, not the high-framerate 48fps presentation that caused such a stir during the theatrical release. I only saw the 24fps version theatrically, which was intentional for my first viewing — I wanted my experience to be more about the movie, not its presentation — but after hearing how discombobulating the high-framerate video was, I happily stuck with local 24fps cinemas for the rest of my cinematic viewings, and all of them were in 2D. So I can say with no reservation at all that this Blu-ray not only faithfully captures the cinematic experience I had with the film, I think it improves on it in a few spots. Granted, the resolution is lower, but in every other respect, An Unexpected Journey meets or exceeds the 24fps 2D theatrical experience.
The Battle of Azanulbizar between Thorin’s forces and Azog’s at the eastern gate of Moria is a perfect example of this: in 24fps on the big screen, the scene was a little hard to follow, which might had had a bit to do with scale, but seemed to have more to do with the fact that judder muddied the action a bit. For whatever reason, that epic battle is more distinct here, and though it’s not actually in 48 frames per second, I think it benefits from being filmed as such. In fact, the only scene in this Blu-ray that presents any noticeable judder at all is a scenic pan of Hobbiton early in the film.
In every other respect, this presentation is very nearly flawless. Granted, black levels might not be the purest of pure black in every scene, but shadow detail is impeccable, and thankfully there’s not a single instance of crushed blacks in the entire transfer. Colors are flawless, compression is transparent, detail is immaculate, and edges are crisp and clean with a bit of edge-enhancement. Granted, the transfer is so pristine that Weta’s sometimes-iffy compositing work is a little more noticeable, but that’s certainly not a slight against the Blu-ray presentation. Quite frankly, the Blu-ray looks far closer to perfection than I ever would have thought possible, and I can’t imagine that even the biggest fans of the film’s HFR exhibition will have anything to complain about.
The film’s sound is also being scaled down from 64-channel Dolby Atmos to 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio for home release, but if anything was lost in the transition, you’ll never notice it. Truly, this is one of the richest, most robust home audio presentations I’ve heard in quite some time: amazing dynamic, richly nuanced, with a gorgeous pounding score, insanely sweeping use of the surround channels, and a low-frequency effects channel that’s thunderous without being overwhelming. Despite the raucousness of the mix, dialogue shines through with brilliant clarity, making it truly one of the most satisfying aural cinematic experiences I’ve had in ages.
What about the extra goodies?
Well, as I alluded to above, you’ll have to wait for the Extended Edition later this year for the bulk of the bonus features. But the Blu-ray does present all of ten Peter Jackson’s Vlogs in high-definition, and if you’re gonna watch them here, you probably already saw all two-hours’ worth online. But it’s still nice to have them all in one place. Not listed on the back of the box is the fact that we also get a New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth featurette that runs six minutes and change, as well as Trailer 1, and five different versions of Trailer 3, all in HD, along with a handful of video game trailers.
Not astounding, no, but neither are the extras here as fluffy as those included with the theatrical Lord of the Rings DVD and Blu-ray releases. Of course, it remains to be seen if the extras on An Unexpected Journey‘s Extended Edition lives up to the Appendices of its predecessors, but we should find out in a few months.
Until then, if extras aren’t your bag, and you think two hours and fifty minutes is long enough to explore a third of The Hobbit, there’s absolutely nothing keeping you from picking this one up. The video transfer is incredible, the audio will tingle your naughty bits, and the only choice to make, really, is whether to spend the extra couple bucks (literally) for the 3D version.