An argument arose on Twitter the other day when a fellow critic and friend inquired as to whether or not he should see Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D and 48fps or in standard 24fps and 2D. As is typical, everyone voiced their opinions, leading to some discussion concerning the intent of the filmmaker. As a film critic, isn’t it our duty to see the film presented in the format the director intended it to be seen? Or is it acceptable to judge the film based on its content, rather than a seemingly unnecessary stylistic decision? Having not seen the movie at the time, the only thing I could contribute was an expression of my desire to see it in 48fps, born equally out of curiosity and a sense of debt to Jackson for trying something new.
The film as a whole follows in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings: Opening with an older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) recounting his tale on parchment, we’re taken to a time sixty years prior, when young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is living a quiet life in his small home. Under the auspices of Gandalf (Ian McKellan), thirteen dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s home one evening in an attempt to recruit him as a “burglar” on their quest to take back their homeland the Lonely Mountain (and all its gold) from the evil dragon Smaug. Defiant in his desire to stay put, Bilbo is ultimately convinced and thus enters on a journey, lead by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to reclaim the dwarves’ rightful home. Along the way they run into a number of obstacles, namely the Orc chieftan Azog, a primary enemy of the dwarves who beheaded Oakenshield’s grandfather.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey languishes mostly in mediocrity, plagued by poor pacing and a plodding story that doesn’t truly kick in until about forty minutes into its approximately two hour and forty five minute running time. It’s in these forty minutes we see the deleterious effect of a high frame rate, as they are little more than exposition and introduction to the dwarves, most of which are little more than comedic fodder than never get enough screentime. The frame rate is distracting, rendering scenes comprised of mostly dialogue laughable due to their almost soap opera-like appearance while the fight scenes, interesting on the surface, are almost headache-inducing due to the speed at which everything is presented.
Beyond this, it all just seems too real. While Jackson was smart to once again utilize the beautiful landscape of New Zealand, the high frame rate makes most of it seem like a constructed set, which in turn diminishes the scope of the film as a whole. Despite stretching across good chunks of Middle Earth, everything just seemed so small. Bilbo’s eventual encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis) is one of the worst scenes in the film, with the latter’s rendering taking on such an appearance it was like Freeman was interacting with a doll. It’s a shame, really, because Freeman is the one standout character, filled with enough depth and emotion that he helps alleviate the damage caused by the cartoon-like dwarves and their wacky antics. Details are so sharp that you begin to lose that suspension of disbelief that sucks you into a movie. In an odd twist, however, the high frame rate did make the 3D pop and look unbelievably amazing on the screen, though this is hardly a good trade off.
It’s not a stretch to say that my enjoyment of the film was seriously sullied by the high frame rate, and it’s only fair to admit that had I seen the film in 24fps and in 2D, my opinion would likely be much different. But careful reflection has made me indeed realize that Peter Jackson had a specific vision in mind, and as a critic I owe it to him to see it as he intended. While it serves its purpose during sweeping shots of the beautiful New Zealand scenery, its utilization throughout most of the film can best be compared to post-converted 3D: Unnecessary and distracting. The film was laden with exciting battle scenes and a modicum of interesting characters, but its exceedingly long running time and application of a new technology rendered it a most unpleasant journey.