We saw the first of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies last night in 3D at 48 frames per second. Normally I’m not a fan of 3D movies because the 3D glasses make the picture darker and the 3D effects tend to make high-action sequences look blurry and hard to follow. However, I thought it was worth checking out the 48 frames per second version of the film since this is the first movie ever to be released in that format and its unlikely that the 48 frames per second version will ever be available on home video (at least for the foreseeable future).

Nearly every review or reaction to the film that I had read online was pretty harshly negative to the 48 frames per second version of the film. The AV Club said “the technique sharpens the picture while producing images that look remarkably video-like and unreal” and “the higher frame rate has a flattening effect that makes everything look shallower, more pixelated, and more artificial.” A lot of people are saying it makes the movie look like a cheaply made soap opera rather than the epic-scaled film it is meant to be.

I held out hope that people were being sticks-in-the-mud and that the effect would look much better than the crappy “motion-smoothing” effect that some HDTVs employ due to the fact that it was actually shot at 48 frames per second and not just using interpolation to create a fake 48fps effect from 24fps source video.

A lot of early reviews and reactions to the film also complained about the pacing, citing the fact that Peter Jackson and company decided to make three films out of the book (instead of the initially planned two films) led to a lot of overlong sequences and the inclusion of padded-out extraneous material that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Again, I kept my hopes up that the filmmakers would exercise the same capability they had showed with the Lord of the Rings films, striking a balance between including everything in the book for the sake of creating a faithful adaptation (which would make for a very boring and long movie) and leaving only the exciting action sequences and none of the prose, dialogue and world-building that make Tolkien’s writing better than run-of-the-mill fantasy.

After seeing the film, I feel completely affirmed on the latter count, and mixed on the former. The movie felt brisk, exciting and well paced despite only covering the first third of The Hobbit. I think something people forget when grousing about how “The Hobbit is shorter than any one of the Lord of the Rings books, yet they’re making the same amount of movies out of it as the entirety of Lord of the rings” is that The Hobbit is much more action-packed as a novel than Lord of the Rings is. It’s easier to cut out or condense long scenes of dialog, of which there are many in Lord of the Rings. If you cut too much out of The Hobbit, the films would be little more than a whirlwind tour of familiar places and events for those who had read the book.

That version of The Hobbit already exists, in the form of the Rankin-Bass cartoon from 1977. It’s only 77 minutes long. It also loses entire portions of the book (Beorn makes no appearance, and neither does the Arkenstone) and doesn’t do much in the way of establishing any of the characters beyond Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin, or the relation of their quest to greater events in Middle-Earth.

The cartoon is great, but Jackson was setting out to make a version of The Hobbit that can co-exist along with his Lord of the Rings films (something Tolkien meant to do with the books, but never got around to completing). That means filling in the shared history that connects the events of the two stories and giving more information about each of the characters that take part in it.

I felt the film was well paced and plotted, the extra material (mostly concerning Radagast the Brown) was handled well. In fact, when reading the books I always used to wish there was more details about Radagast since the order of five wizards is an interesting feature of Middle-Earth that never gets much discussion within Tolkien’s books. Iconic scenes like “Riddles in the Dark” get room to breathe and sink in, but don’t feel overlong or plodding.

As far as the high frame rate and 3D, I will say this: the high frame rate resolved the darkness and blurriness that I normally associate with 3D movies. Even in the action sequences with a lot of quick camera movements, the action was never blurry or incomprehensible like with 3D films shot at a traditional frame rate. The high frame rate combined with the 3D creates a shoebox diorama like deepening illusion that makes it feel like you’re watching the story unfold through a window rather than having things fly out of the screen at you.

However, at certain times throughout the film, the high framerate gives the movie a “sped up” quality, almost like watching a VHS tape while fast forwarding, or watching an old newsreel of Babe Ruth running the bases that the camera operator cranked too quickly. This effect was rather jarring and weirdly seemed to come and go in fits and starts, only for one single shot in the middle of a scene here and there. Also the high framerate causes some of the special effects to look particularly video-gameish, especially during scenes where the characters were walking on a surface that was obviously computer generated, such as the swinging bridges in the Goblin King sequence.

All in all, I’d say it’s the start of what looks to be a very good telling of the story of The Hobbit and I’m looking forward to the next installment. If you like 3D, I’d recommend the high framerate version since it’s so much brighter and clearer than 24 frames per second 3D. However, if you’re indifferent to 3D or actively dislike it I’d say stick with the 24fps 2D version.

Nerdy Plot Hole: If Gandalf now has the morgul blade that was made for the Witch King of Angmar, how does the Witch King get it back in order to stab Frodo with it on Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring?