DID WE SAY MASSIVE SPOILERS?! Yes, we did.... Tuesday's unspooling of 10 minutes of THE HOBBIT at CinemaCon took the place quite by surprise....
When we got to the Peter Jackson intro bit, the audience was asked to put on their 3D glasses and there he was! Our familiar PJ was on-screen in 3D, sporting a little salt & pepper in his beard and looking rather hale for someone who is working so hard, yet eager to review notable technical advancements throughout movie history. He thoughtfully explained the adoption of different frame-rates when silent movies went to talkies. Saying that the industry had settled on a standard of 24 frames-per-second for more than seventy years now, it was time to bring everyone a sample of what 48 fps would look like. "Why build a ten-minute segment? Because I wanted to give you ample time to take it in, because it will take your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the look of it," he explained. It was a fascinating preamble, but needful in that these film exhibitors, perhaps more than fans, want to know what goes into this new tech and what impact it may have on their business. As Ringer fans, our concerns are fidelity to Tolkien, and perhaps to another extent the movie-core fans want to see fidelity to PJ's Lord of the Rings Trilogy, as we expect the complete set of five films will be considered of a piece.
RETURNING TO MOVIE MIDDLE-EARTH
The first thing we saw in 48fps were gorgeously bright shots of the clouds and mountains of New Zealand, the kind of sweeping areal photography that made us swoon in LOTR, thinking again that the country itself was the best piece of casting for Middle-earth. For a breathless moment I felt rather like someone in an audience seeing their first color film after endless years of only Black & White photography. Someone had lifted the glass off the windshield and you were looking at something real and in three dimensions.
I was indeed taken aback by the presentation. What all did I see? I'll break it down for you, keeping in mind this material was "unfinished" meaning incomplete green screen shots, no color-correcting, borrowed music cues from the Trilogy, etc. It was a non-continuous potpourri of scenes, most if not all from the first installment THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.
CHOCK FULL OF SURPRISES SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
Aside from several seconds of familiar content seen in the teaser trailer this past winter, the clips quickly hit brand new territory:
The White Council featuring Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond.
This showed Sir Christopher Lee in front of greenscreen, looking at the table where Gandalf has just placed a Morgul blade. Urgent discussion ensues about the nature of the weapon, and a luminous Cate Blanchett gets the lion's share of the expository dialogue. She explains how the Men of the North once battled against the Witch-King of Angmar, and succeeded in burying him in a spell-protected crypt, "so dark and deeply buried it would never see light again." Gandalf raises his eyebrows as if to say, "It's right here, so never say never." Hugo Weaving provides the deep-voiced "But that's impossible!" incredulity of the scene while the faintest flicker of wickedness passes across Saruman's face. I loved it! Intrigue and nervousness among the White Council… sounds great except it doesn't exist in J.R.R. Tolkien like that.
Nowhere in the books did the Dúnedain show the ability to imprison the Nazgûl. This is our first evidence of the filmmakers applying new narrative invention with material culled from the Appendices of LOTR. We evidently won't see the Battle of Fornost or hear Glorfindel's famous prophecy being uttered about the Witch-King's ultimate fate, as his dark enemy flees into the distance. So be prepared to tell your non-Tolkien reading friends what really happened with the Nazgûl.
Cut to the prison-crypt, where Gandalf is investigating in the dark, using only his staff as a light source, and then BAM! there's Radagast right behind him. Here is the wonderful Sylvester McCoy giving us a daftly adorable new wizard. Strange that Radagast is not shown as a member of the White Council, though. Setting that aside, I must admit McCoy's portrayal, along with Martin Freeman's wonderful Bilbo, are the two performances I most admire so far.
Radagast? Oh let me tell you, he's got so much going on! He is wearing a funnily-shaped hat with dominant brown and black hues, underneath which is revealed a bird's nest with hatchlings making a mess all in his hair and beard! McCoy brings a disarming, childlike quality to the character. As Gandalf whips around to see who is sneaking up on him, he exhales rather irritated, "Oh, it's you," followed by Radagast's frightened admission that the crypt they're standing in "is not a nice place to meet." He also has a glowing crystal piece in his staff, and leaning over the vertical shaft, they both look down over the edge, as Gandalf counts a total of nine tombs, all with their spells broken and bars ripped.
I'm not remembering these clips in the correct order they were shown, but we also see a brief shot of Radagast being pulled along the forest floor in a sled drawn by mighty grey jackrabbits! I kid you not, it was a ramshackle version of an Iditarod dogsled, made of twisted branches and bracken, pulled by six or seven oversized rabbits. I think it was Radagast, but he went by so fast — what other character could it be? And this point the filmmakers are making a complete departure from Tolkien but it honestly doesn't bother me. I like the idea that the writers and WETA's clever artists can come up with something wholly new. It seems quite silly on paper, but it's also whimsical enough to fit in nicely with the tone of The Hobbit book. It's definitely no sillier than a line-up of farm animals setting up a feast and doing catering service in Beorn's house, is it?
I believe this Radagast will be a most memorable character that moviegoers love to love. I think he's an innovation for this story. Can't wait to see more of McCoy in this role.
Riddles in the Dark with Sméagol/Gollum and Bilbo
This is where Martin Freeman really has a few minutes to shine. But it's insane to think anyone can outshine Andy Serkis in the perfection of his Gollum creation. Mr. Freeman holds his own and it's a wonderful characterization of a new Hobbit we have never quite seen. This Bilbo Baggins doesn't remind me of Merry or Pippin, even though he has a light comedic touch. He certainly isn't like Sam or Frodo, and yet the Baggins' sense of adventure is written in his eyes in subtle ways. Yes, I can see those kinds of details at 48 fps.
How does Gollum look ten years later? Have the digital animation masters at WETA created something new? Well, in this writer's opinion, Gollum looks really fantastic, but not like a reinvented wheel. He is the very familiar and pitiable Sméagol/Gollum we already know/love/hate. He and the other CGI creations fare quite well with the enhanced clarity of this higher frame rate. These two most classic of Tolkien's characters engage in a bizarre moment of competing desires to eat raw flesh versus the desire to escape alive, all handled with a funny light touch. Expect this Riddle Game to be a standout episode in the first installment.
The Trolls – Tom, Bert and Bill – all with dialogue!
The sequence with Bilbo trying to pickpocket a massive Stone Troll is another highlight that was given a more minutes of continuous screening time before cutting to other shots. We have seen the statues of the Trolls in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, especially in the Extended Edition, and now they are finally alive and moving — and speaking! They have heavy Cockney accents and, as expected, are quite brutish and primarily motivated by hunger. Still don't know the names of the voice actors providing the Tolkien-true performances. The digital compositing of Bilbo against the larger-scale Trolls wasn't exactly cleaned and finished, but it's impressive when the camera moves overhead to let the audience pretend they're sitting on a branch watching the mayhem below. The birds-eye view helps the trick of scale, methinks. Here, however, the Dwarves do not approach the Troll's campfire piecemeal, as in the book, but come charging forward in a brave attempt to rescue their comrade. Kili makes the first decisive stroke against one Troll's calf-muscles, then we see Thorin chopping relentlessly at their feet, screaming "DROP HIM!" which they do. We do not see the famous Gandalf "DAWN TAKE YOU ALL AND BE STONE TO YOU" moment.
Gandalf in Dol Guldur with Thráin
This was just a little bit of this, but it leads up to the stuff in the teaser trailer. Gandalf is seen skulking about in Dol Guldur's dungeon level (this is the closest we will ever get to sounding like a Dungeons & Dragons module) acting very much like he is being followed. Trying to elude the unseen pursuer in the dark passageways, our grey wizard twists about in every direction, still not seeing his foe. Then there's a horror-movie JUMP! moment when Thráin pounces on Gandalf. No other dialogue or follow-up, it was over as fast as that. What I'd really like to see is the moment where the crazed-from-torture Thráin actually calms down enough to give Gandalf the key and map!
Legolas and Tauriel in an action sequence and a tense threat to Thorin!
I witnessed the whole Company of Dwarves struggling through Mirkwood forest, greenscreen everywhere, and most obviously they were covered with spiderwebs and goo. Their run through the forest is abruptly cut short with an arrow in Thorin's face. It is rather reminiscent of the bit in FELLOWSHIP where Haldir and his team bring weapons to bear against Frodo. Too bad I didn't see anything of the new Tauriel character played by Evangeline Lilly — except one swooping action shot where she slides cowboy-style across the ground with her bow drawn, ready to kill… Fans have asked only one question about this invented character: what does she look like? Well, brown is what she looks like. I mean, she is sporting the same outfit we've seen Legolas wear but not in green. Her hair is not blonde — actually she seems to be the first chestnut brown-haired Elf we have seen in PJ's adaptations. Orlando Bloom makes a triumphant return to the role of Legolas spitting out a venomous threat to Thorin: "I won't hesitate to kill you, Dwarf." I've never heard Legolas sound quite so pissed off. It's really, really cool...