Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (James Fisher / Warner Bros.…)
In the wake of the stellar success of Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which grossed more than $2.9 billion worldwide and won a slew of awards, it's no shock that the New Zealand filmmaker would eventually turn to Tolkien's other beloved fantasy tale set in the familiar realm of Middle-earth, "The Hobbit."
More surprising was the decision to stretch the lean book into three separate films, starting with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," opening Dec. 14. Early reviews indicate that while this first new installment does recapture much of Jackson's Middle-earth magic, it also feels padded (which it is, drawing heavily on Tolkien's appendices to the "Rings" books) and fitful at times.
Reactions to the film's new high-frame-rate screening format, which projects 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24 in order to offer increased clarity, have also been ambivalent.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The Hobbit": In a Dec. 8 Section A article about Peter Jackson shooting the "Lord of the Rings" prequel at 48 frames per second for greater clarity, a quote by "Looper" director Rian Johnson about Jackson should have read "It's a filmmaker I love cranking up one of the few variables left in film exhibition, so even if I don't think it'll be for me, I'm just excited to see what it looks like," not "As a filmmaker I love cranking up one of the few variables left in film exhibition, so even if I don't think it'll be for me, I'm just excited to see what it looks like." —
The Associated Press' David Germain writes that "The Hobbit" is "overstuffed with, well, stuff." Over the course of the film's two hours and 50 minutes, Germain says, "Tolkien's brisk story of intrepid little hobbit Bilbo Baggins is drawn out and diluted by dispensable trimmings better left for DVD extras."
Regarding the HFR projection, Germain says the images are indeed sharper: "The panoramas are like Middle-earth actually come to life, as though you're standing on a hill looking down at the hobbits' Shire." On the other hand, he adds, "At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, sometimes feeling so intimate it's like watching live theater. … Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film."
Variety's Peter Debruge agrees with Germain's take on both the narrative and the high-speed format. Regarding the former, he writes, "While Peter Jackson's prequel to 'The Lord of the Rings' delivers more of what made his earlier trilogy so compelling — colorful characters on an epic quest amid stunning New Zealand scenery — it doesn't offer nearly enough novelty to justify the three-film, nine-hour treatment, at least on the basis of this overlong first installment."
Debruge goes on to say that while the HFR does indeed reduce visual stuttering, it comes "at too great a cost." He adds that "everything takes on an overblown, artificial quality in which the phoniness of the sets and costumes becomes obvious, while well-lit areas bleed into their surroundings, like watching a high-end home movie."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy predicts that "An Unexpected Journey" will please the fan base: "Jackson and his colleagues have created a purist's delight, something the millions of die-hard fans of his 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy will gorge upon. In pure movie terms, however, it's also a bit of a slog, with an inordinate amount of exposition and lack of strong forward movement."
McCarthy isn't sold on HFR yet either. He says, "The results are interesting and will be much-debated, but an initial comparison of the two formats weighs against the experiment; the print shown at Warner Bros. in what is being called 'high frame rate 3D,' while striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film a oddly theatrical look."
Other reviewers are more keen on "The Hobbit," including Total Film's Matthew Leyland and Hollywood.com's Matt Patches. Leyland says the film "moves at an even clip" and adds, "it rarely feels like Jackson has had the rolling pin out, overstretching the material." While conceding that the HFR does take some getting used to, Leyland writes that "the pay-off is a striking smoothness and sharpness."
Patches says that though the film feels "meandering" in its second half, "Jackson's expert direction and production value keeps attention hooked." He also calls the high frame rate "an interesting experiment that mostly works, but [is] perhaps a tad distracting for those who want to sit back and lose themselves in Middle Earth."
For now it remains to be seen how audiences will respond, both to Jackson's latest trilogy and to higher frame rates. The journey has just begun.
'The Hobbit' to play in high frame rate at 450 theaters
'The Hobbit': Peter Jackson talks Smaug cameo, creature design
'The Hobbit': : Peter Jackson’s unexpected journey to three films