The Hobbit Review: High Frame Rate

(Warning: Possible, minor spoilers. Nothing earth-shattering, but you’ve been warned.)

The Hobbit is a good movie, but the 48 FPS (High Frame Rate) version just does not work. It was so distracting that I couldn’t really get into the movie. A lot of the time, it looked like we were watching a behind-the-scenes featurette on a DVD or a made-for-TV movie with a large effects budget. There were even a few moments where the movie appeared to be a well-staged play. My son said that it looked like something you’d see at a theme park, where they get some of the actors from the movie to show up in a video for an interactive ride. I found the whole effect distracting to the point that I now have to watch the movie again in a standard frame rate to see how it looks as a film, rather than a TV documentary with legendary creatures.

Frame rate issues aside, the movie itself is very good, but Peter Jackson appears to be exhibiting early signs of Lucasification, as he’s clearly indulging his every whim in this movie (the frame rate issue was the first clue). For those wondering how in the world he can make three very long movies out of a very short children’s book, the answer seems to be: by making every scene several minutes longer than it needs to be. It’s been more than a decade since I last read The Hobbit but it looks to me that Jackson is including every single scene from the book, and quite a few that aren’t, and each is given several minutes worth of footage to boot. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “You little shits want to rake me over the coals about Tom Bombadil? Here’s five minutes of a guy reviving a hedgehog.”

Jackson also appears to be in the same quandary as Tolkien back in the 1950s. After writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back to The Hobbit and tried to give it the same feel and tone as the latter books. He got as far as re-writing the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter before abandoning the project. The fundamental stumbling block is that The Hobbit is a children’s tale about a guy taken out of his comfort zone and propelled into an adventure where he encounters strange and funny creatures along the way. The book’s tone isn’t serious and it doesn’t even take itself seriously. It’s a light-hearted, witty, fast-paced story where the only thing at stake is whether his dwarven group will be able to slay the dragon and reclaim their home. You can’t shoehorn-in the Lord of the Rings’ tone without utterly destroying what makes “The Hobbit,” The Hobbit.

Unlike Tolkien, Jackson doesn’t seem to want to recognize The Hobbit for what it is and let it be, as he persists in a vain effort to dovetail it thematically with his version of The Lord of the Rings. That’s really hard to do when you have slapstick trolls, Jabba the Cockney Goblin King, and Radagast the Brown piloting a high-speed sleigh drawn by a dozen jackrabbits. The juxtaposition of the Witch King of Angmar, dread and terrible leader of the Nazgul and recently resurrected by the Necromancer by fel, dark magic to once again cast a shadow over the lands of Middle-Earth, attempting to slay a crazy man with bird shit in his hair, doesn’t really work. You have to choose either to show The Hobbit or a darker movie inspired by The Hobbit; you can’t do both. Factor in the high frame rate, which makes it look almost like a College Humor video parody of the Lord of the Rings, and the entire effort teeters on the brink of ridiculousness.

Still, The Hobbit is a good, fun movie and all of the criticisms I’ve outlined above do not break the film. In fact, I actually enjoyed it. I think that if I saw it again at a normal frame rate, most of the detractions that stood out before would likely disappear into the background. The High Frame Rate really exposes flaws in a movie that would otherwise normally be forgotten or missed. It’s not yet ready for prime time, at least until filmmakers are able to figure out how to cheat and hide certain things like they can with standard movies. When I see it again, I’ll follow-up with a post with some thoughts on how the movie goes without the distraction of the high frame rate (edit: and here it is).