A first look at Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" suggests those nagging questions about the hyper-sharp projection format won't go away anytime soon
In Chapter 1 of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," Gandalf the wizard offers Bilbo Baggins the chance to "share in an adventure," and Bilbo – the Hobbit after whom the book is named – reacts with scorn.
"We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures," Bilbo says. "Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!"
After seeing Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three movies that the director plans to make from Tolkien's book, I have to wonder: Am I turning into a Hobbit? Because I found the film and particularly its hyper-clarity courtesy of 48 frames-per-second projection, a little disturbing and uncomfortable.
Jackson's "The Hobbit" is an unexpected journey in more ways than one. Unexpected because while the three volumes and 1,000-plus pages of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" justified three movies, "The Hobbit" is a slim children's book far lighter in both tone and plot.
Unexpected because the book is 150 pages shorter than the shortest of the three "LOTR" books, and yet Jackson has opted to turn it into three movies, with the help of material plundered from the "Return of the King" appendices and various other Tolkien sources.
And unexpected because in projecting and screening the film at 48fps, twice the rate at which film has been projected until now, Jackson has taken a familiar and beloved land, the Middle-earth of his and Tolkien's imagination, and turned it into a disquieting and unfamiliar environment.
"I'm the biggest film nerd there is, and it took me a while to adjust to it," Jackson told TheWrap at a Monday evening reception for his film. "But once I made the adjustment, I thought it opened up new possibilities — and it took advantage of 3D in a way that 24fps can't do."
But how long will it take viewers to make that adjustment?
"I don't know," he said. "But I think most of them will be good by the middle of the movie."
As much as Bilbo is doing in the story, Jackson is venturing into uncharted territory here – and for all the potential upside to ever-improving cinema technology, to these eyes the new format doesn't serve his film well.
TheWrap will have a full review closer to the release date, but on first viewing, this diehard "Lord of the Rings" fan found "The Hobbit" to be too bloated and too slow. And the pleasure of returning to Middle-earth, something I was looking forward to doing, dissipated when that Middle-earth turned out to have the disconcerting look of a high-def video production.
"It's definitely a push into the next generation of filmmaking," said Weta Digital director Joe Letteri, the senior visual-effects supervisor for the film, when I spoke to him on Monday. "And every time that happens, some people are going to be left behind, and others are going to embrace it."
Maybe I'll embrace it after a second viewing – or maybe I'll continue to miss the Middle-earth I remember from the first three movies, where things aren't quite so vivid or so goofy.
The thing is, I'm not sure that Letteri doesn't agree with me. "Sure, a lot of us are nostalgic for the look of film, and 24 frames," he said. "But that's gradually going away. The next generation will be seeing digital and stereo as more commonplace, and once that happens, I think more and more films will pick up the high frame rate side of it as well.
"It points the way toward how films will look in the future."
Certainly, the 48fps "Hobbit" has its pleasures, foremost among them some thrilling vistas near the end of the film. And the movie will be projected in the usual 24fps in the majority of theaters, in a variety of formats that include 2D, 3D, IMAX and IMAX 3D.
When conventioneers at CinemaCon in April reacted skeptically to a 10-minute 48fps presentation of "Hobbit" footage, Jackson said that viewers needed to settle into the whole movie, and that post-production work still needed to be done to the footage.
"You don't know whether you like it or not until you can be immersed in it for two hours," he said at ComicCon three months later. "That's not how it should be judged – not in a convention hall, in an environment that is not the cinema."
After seeing it in an environment that is the cinema, though, I still have my doubts. Like Bilbo Baggins, I'm not sure I want to go on this adventure.
SECOND THOUGHTS: At the time this story was originally published on Monday night, I was seeing "The Hobbit" for the second time, again at 48fps. And I have to admit that not only did the movie strike me as better — faster and more entertaining, though still padded and at times silly — but the format wasn't as bothersome.
I still think the high frame rate takes you out of the movie at times, particularly in scenes that feature well-lit actors prominently in the frame. But about half the time, the format came closer to justifying Jackson's experiment than it had seemed on first viewing.
So maybe I'm just one of those viewers who needs more time to adjust.