[Fresh on 4K] ‘THE HOBBIT’ trilogy isn’t one to rule them all, but it’s OK for what it is

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Connor Bynum // Film Critic

THE HOBBIT: THE MOTION PICTURE TRILOGY

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellenMartin FreemanRichard Armitage, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom and Benedict Cumberbatch

THE HOBBIT as a film trilogy is best described as “troubled”. 

After setting the world ablaze with Middle Earth fever in 2001, Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy would go down as one of the greatest series of films ever made (which still hold up today), setting expectations for the inevitable follow up of Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT at nearly impossible levels. 

With numerous lawsuits regarding studio rights, Tolkien’s family estate, New Zealand labor laws, and even Jackson’s role as director, it honestly should be considered an absolute marvel that these films were made at all even if they do fail to recapture the magic of the first trilogy. With that in mind, Jackon’s three HOBBIT films (AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, and THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES) are available now in a truly magnificent 4K presentation.

Movie Grade: C+

THE HOBBIT follows the story of Bilbo Baggins (brilliantly portrayed by Martin Freeman), a Hobbit of The Shire who is recruited by a wizard named Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to join a crew of thirteen dwarves to reclaim their home of Erebor from a terrible fire breathing dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). 

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) leads the dwarves as he seeks to take back his title of King Under The Mountain and the vast hoards of treasure that lie within its halls. Along the way, Bilbo and the dwarves encounter numerous obstacles, including trolls, goblins, wolves, Elves, men, and even a foul cave dweller known simply as Gollum (played once more to utter perfection by Andy Serkis). Along their journey, Bilbo learns the true value of home, family, and courage as well as why Hobbits typically don’t go on any adventures or do anything unexpected.

Those who have read the book these films are based on may be taken aback by the combined runtime of seven hours and fifty-four minutes (and eight hours and fifty-two minutes for the extended versions). Originally envisioned as a two-part series of films and only upgraded to a trilogy while being filmed, films two and three, unfortunately, suffer far too heavily from studio meddling. Character arcs feel stretched like butter scraped over too much bread. The iconic use of practical sets, prosthetic makeup, and miniature models are suffocated by an over-reliance on computer-generated monsters that look all too perfect to be believable. 

Unlike THE LORD OF THE RINGS, fans may prefer the theatrical versions of these films over their extended counterparts. After all, what sense is there in making what is already too long even longer? Yet I would argue that the longer films are still worth a look. The longest of them (THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG) only clocks in at a relatively brisk 186 minutes, and they actually contain additional scenes that fans of the book would enjoy. Additional footage of Bilbo in The Shire before setting off on his adventure helps establish the home he is about to leave behind, and more time is spent in the wilderness of Mirkwood before stumbling across the dreaded spiders. Even THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES benefits from the extra runtime, as additional scenes of Bilbo and Thorin help remind viewers why they’re even on this adventure in the first place. 

On the subject of THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, it’s best to get it out of the way now. While the other five films all share a PG-13 rating, this one was given a surprising R rating. Given that the film is about a massive battle between five armies, it does make sense on paper. I personally prefer the extended cut of all three films, but younger viewers may be better off sticking with the theatrical version because the extended version is aggressively violent when held next to the previous films. 

Siege weapons demolish numerous men and elves, orcs and trolls are literally ripped to shreds with copious amounts of blood, and Galadriel (Cate Blanchet) even makes an orc explode with the wave of a hand. It’s painfully obvious that Peter Jackson let himself loose with this one, which is only frustrating because the theatrical version plays as an incoherent mess after necessary cuts were made to achieve a PG-13 rating. 

Overall, THE HOBBIT as a film trilogy exists whether fans like it or not and is most likely the only version of this story that will ever be made. Diehard lovers of Middle Earth will certainly find elements to enjoy but if others are only able to afford one trilogy of Middle Earth films this holiday season, they are advised to put this one back on the shelf for another time.

Courtesy of Blu-ray.com

Video/Audio Grade: A-

All three films were filmed in a native 5K resolution and personally supervised by Peter Jackson himself for the 4K release. Like THE LORD OF THE RINGS, these films are absolutely gorgeous. The elaborate prosthetic beards and noses on the thirteen dwarves look incredibly detailed, and the practical sets and costumes are brimming with texture. 

The computer-generated effects are somewhat of a mixed bag. Gollum and Smaug both look outstanding, as both of these characters were undoubtedly given the most time and care from the visual effects team. The same cannot be said for the likes of the Goblin King (Barry Humphries), Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennet), Bolg the Orc (Lawrence Makoare), and most of the armies in the third film. These creations certainly look good but simply don’t appear believable when standing next to live-action actors and sets.

The inclusion of HDR10 and Dolby Vision once again steals the show in all three films. Darker scenes like the troll attack, Mirkwood, and Dol Guldur all look fantastic without the slightest hint of crushing. Color tones in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY are incredibly saturated, with live-action locations in New Zealand looking better than ever. Computer-generated environments like Erebor and sections of Dale also are improved by the increased color pallet. 

The films also come with a glorious Dolby Atmos audio mix, a pleasant improvement over the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix from the previous Blu-ray releases. The new mix is unsurprisingly best experienced during the numerous action sequences. The sound of whooshing arrows, clanging swords and shields, and the thunder of marching armies all make wonderful use of the side and overhead channels. Dialogue comes in clear as day at all times, and Howard Shore’s score fills the room beautifully. On a technical level, these are just shy of reference-quality presentations.

It is important to state that all three films were originally shot and projected in a higher frame rate of 48 frames per second in select theaters. Films are traditionally shot in 24 frames per second, so doubling this number essentially gave these films a smoother “soap opera” look. Defenders of the style claim it made the 3D version easier to watch with less eye strain, but others complained it was too distracting and ironically less immersive than watching it in 2D at 24 fps. With all of that in mind, these films are not presented in 48 fps. 4K UHD discs are indeed capable of playing movies at 60 fps, such as Ang Lee’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK and GEMINI MAN, but cannot play films at 48fps.

Extras Grade: D+

Like THE LORD OF THE RINGS that released on 4K alongside THE HOBBIT, there are no special features included in this set. A digital copy code of the theatrical and extended cuts is included, however, and extras can be accessed on streaming devices. With a glossy slip-cover over a single case which houses all six discs, the packaging pairs quite nicely with THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Additionally, no 1080p Blu-ray of either version of the three films is included in this set.

Final Grade: B-

Even though all three HOBBIT films fail to live up to their predecessor’s expectations, these are some of the finest 4K presentations to come out in 2020. If you want to experience all that Middle Earth has to offer in the finest video and audio quality possible, these are exactly what you are looking for.

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