Much has already been said about the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 fps* (also known as High Frame Rate, or HFR), with critics and film enthusiasts sharply divided into “love” and “hate” camps. Before 48 fps and The Hobbit became a moot point and (gasp!) the new norm, I thought it was time to throw in my two cents. I was “fortunate” enough to catch the film in a theater (The Alamo Drafthouse South) with projection equipment capable of showcasing the new process. As I understand it, the primary advantage of the higher framerate is a smoother, ultra-high resolution image, which theoretically makes 3D easier on the eyes. While the level of detail was certainly impressive, it also left me all too cognizant of the artificiality of the effects. This was especially noticeable in the Rivendell scene, in which the CGI-rendered backdrop of Rivendell reminded me of one of those old Hamm’s beer lighted signs with the moving waterfall in the background. Suddenly, The Hobbit seemed like a stage show, performed by a repertory troupe. My wife was similarly unimpressed with this new, “innovative” process, likening it to a live-action popup book. Instead of being whisked away by the immersive experience that director Peter Jackson likely intended, I felt somewhat detached from the action. To be fair, I realize that we could be experiencing a technology in its infancy, without all of the bugs worked out. Maybe it’s simply a matter of refining 48 fps, dialing it back a bit, to modulate that sense of hyper-reality (or the “uncanny valley” as some coined it). For now, however, at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, I’m looking forward to watching it again in good old standard 2D, 24 fps.
* You can find a brief explanation of 48 fps, along with a discussion of the pros and cons here.
Okay, so how was the movie, projection aside? Short answer: It’s still worth seeing, if you temper your expectations. On its journey from book to film, The Hobbit experienced a long, troubled road to production. The finished product is clearly a compromise between Peter Jackson and the production companies. Considering the box office returns generated by the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the amount of money necessary to bring The Hobbit to life, Jackson was likely under enormous pressure to create a new trilogy with the scope and breadth of the original films. As a result, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey appears to be riding the coattails of the good will generated by Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth. The source material, a comparatively short novel, could easily have been transformed into one 3-hour movie, but now it’s being broken into two 3-hour parts, with a third film presumably veering off on a tangent from the book (based on Tolkien’s scribblings?). There are some fun cameos, including welcome faces from The Lord of the Rings films, but this only contributes to the perception that the filmmakers had to keep adding things in to pad out the material. I’m not a big fan of the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit, but it’s interesting to note that they managed to tell the whole story in less than 90 minutes. Some critics found fault with The Hobbit’s lighter tone, but I don’t really have a problem with that. The book was aimed at a younger audience, compared to The Lord of the Rings. If The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its yet-to-be released sequels had preceded The Lord of the Rings films, it’s likely that the jump in tone would have barely registered on anyone’s critical radar. Misgivings aside, I’m sure I’ll be there for the second installment of The Hobbit. P.T. Barnum would be proud.