At the time Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (LotR) movies were released, there were no epic fantasy films that could even begin to represent the visual splendor and massive scope of the best of fantasy literature, especially the work of its primary progenitor, J.R.R. Tolkien. Most fantasy films were limited by their budgets, the technology available at the time of their production, or by the paltry imaginations of filmmakers. Likewise, the prevailing wisdom of the studios decreed that fantasy movies were for (mostly male) children and adolescents and, thus, they pandered to a perceived juvenile audience. While some works of fantasy have stimulated and enriched the imaginations of wide and varied audiences for decades (The Wizard of Oz  being perhaps the most significant example), many were intellectually-challenged crap (think: the gorgeous but insipid Legend  or the scores of sword and sorcery films that came in the wake of Excalibur ).
LotR was a revelation: a work of great vision, a mostly careful translation of Tolkien’s vision to the screen, and a genuine cultural zeitgeist that reached far beyond what would have been thought of as its target audience (nerds). It was bold, thrilling, beautifully made, and the very definition of epic filmmaking. In the wake of LotR’s release, fantasy fans and those with little interest in the genre were given a somewhat more budget-restricted but far more adult (and byzantine) series: HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF) books as Game of Thrones. ASoIaF surely owes an acknowledged debt to Tolkien’s work, but it brings a darkness and modern sophistication of character and story (or, rather, several sprawling and ultimately intertwining stories) that was not present in Tolkien’s seminal novels. No filmed work of fantasy has better represented what the modern incarnation of the literary genre at its best has to offer than Game of Thrones. One could not hope for that level of very adult epic fantasy in a novel published in 1937 and aimed towards adolescent readers. The Hobbit should be judged on its own merits, but the existence of Game of Thrones will likely color how adult viewers will perceive the movie.
The Hobbit strives to re-create the magic of the trilogy and dovetail into it in ways that even the novel couldn’t do since it was written before the trilogy was conceived. Jackson and his fellow scriptwriters were free to “retcon” some of the novel’s text in its cinema translation to better incorporate and foreshadow plot strands that would only come to fore in the LotR movie trilogy. The episodic structure of the novel runs a bit like this: Bilbo and the dwarves walk in the woods, they sing a jaunty song, they get captured by some beasts, the beasts sing a menacing song, Gandalf saves our heroes, they set out again. Repeat and repeat. Once Bilbo comes into possession of Gollum’s “magic ring” (in the book sometimes referred to by Gollum as his “birthday present” and not the object of good/evil duality it becomes in the trilogy), he uses it to render himself invisible and save his ass and his beardy friends through the entire latter part of the novel.
Prior to the release of The Hobbit there was much grumbling on the internet about it being parceled into three films. Those who’d read the novel felt it was absurd to stretch out its events so the studio could make more money. The incorporation of ancillary Tolkien text (but not from The Silmarillion, the rights of which are retained by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who has expressed great disdain for Peter Jackson’s films) placated some fan reservations. Upon release of some footage from the first film, fans were again distraught to hear the high frame video rate 48 fps process used to shoot the film had given the footage the appearance of a hi-def soap opera. While many theatres would be presenting the film in standard 24 fps, the director’s vision was a 48 fps presentation in 3-D.
It was in 48 fps 3-D that I saw The Hobbit screened and the presentation of it in this way caused such a massive impediment to my judging the film that I feel I can’t fully put a value on its achievements or flaws. Surely the DNA that made LotR such an impressive achievement is present. There are great battles, strange creatures, moments of warm humor, and a deep mythology that rewards those who know something of it and confuses those who don’t. Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins. The return/introduction of Gollum is note-perfect and the little creep comes out looking the best in his new 48 fps incarnation. Guest appearances from characters from the LotR trilogy caused audible squeals of pleasure from some audience members at the screening I attended.
But it was technology that killed the beast. In this case the 48 fps process, as detailed below.
The fears of those who’d seen the early footage of The Hobbit have proven to be correct. When presented in 48 fps and in 3-D the movie looks like a staged play. The immediacy of the movie is distancing. Shorn of the patina of celluloid, The Hobbit looks painfully artificial. From the sets, to the make-up, to the manner in which the characters move and relate to one another and their green screen and CGI environments, it all comes over as a television drama. The 48 fps shooting and presentation are meant to create a “you are there” effect, but, unfortunately, you are not in Middle Earth with the hobbit, wizard, and dwarfs, as in the LotR films. Rather, you are on a soundstage surrounded by digitally-rendered effects — and every moment of The Hobbit telegraphs this to you. I found this so distracting that only in dimly illuminated moments (like Bilbo’s riddle battle with Gollum in his lair) could I lose myself within the film.
And so, I come to my conclusion.
3. The Conclusion
Which is: I feel I can not evaluate The Hobbit until I’ve seen it flat (that is, not in 3-D) and in standard 24 fps. I can’t judge this movie as a movie until it actually looks like a movie. Peter Jackson’s intentions as a filmmaker be damned. As a fan of Tolkien’s works, Jackson’s original cinematic translations of them, and the power of cinema in general, I feel cheated out of the experience I had been desiring for so long. While I can selectively embrace technological innovations and I don’t possess the anachronistic obsession with celluloid that some friends and fellow cinephiles suffer from, I feel I know what magic looks like and The Hobbit in this presentation had only the faintest traces of it.
As I write this, mine is a voice among some. By the time this review sees publication, it will be a voice among many. Upon seeing The Hobbit as Peter Jackson intended, your voice will join the chorus.
The Hobbit is now playing in Philly-area theaters.