In the Shire, a Hobbit-populated region of Middle Earth, Mr. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is setting down — for the sake of his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) — a true account of his life's great adventure. Forty years earlier, a tall wizard named Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) induced the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman, who handles the role for the body of the film) to join a troop of dwarfs on a quest to reclaim their homeland. A very long time ago they were driven out by the dragon Smaug. Bilbo and the others take off on a great journey and....
Do we really have to outline the plot of Peter Jackson's new film, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"? Unless you're an Imperial soldier who's been hiding in the jungle waiting for the end of World War II, the odds are that you've read J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy or, at the very least, seen Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning film adaptation. You know that the children's book "The Hobbit" was Tolkien's first excursion into the fantasy realm of Middle Earth, and that the author later changed it to make it compatible with "The Lord of the Rings."
Likewise, director Jackson (who, together with his usual team, also wrote the screenplay and produced) has gone back to "The Hobbit" and expanded its brief story to the length of three features ... three very long features. (This first installment clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes.)
The filming of "The Lord of the Rings" was financially a hugely risky proposition. Jackson's reputation makes "The Hobbit" a much surer bet, but he still seems addicted to taking risks. This time, he has complicated his otherwise secure project in two ways: first, taking one slim volume and adding enough for a trilogy; second, shooting it in 3-D at 48 frames per second. By itself, 3-D is hardly risky these days, but 48 frames per second? For those of you who have no notion of what that entails or why it's significant, let's at least try to explain:
Since the beginning of the sound era, film has almost always been shot and projected at 24 frames per second — that is, 24 discrete images every second. During exhibition, each frame is flashed twice to avoid flicker. In pre-HDTV American TV technology, the image was recorded at roughly 30 frames per second and "doubled" for similar effect.
Back in the '70s and '80s, visual effects master Douglas Trumbull ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner") experimented with the physiological responses of viewers shown various higher numbers of discrete images. He found that at up to 60 or 72 images per second, the illusion of reality grew — and, at some frequencies, leapt. Showscan, the system he developed, ran at 60 frames per second; unfortunately it was ahead of its time. In addition, "Brainstorm," designed as Showscan's feature debut, was, to put it mildly, a troubled production, with Natalie Wood, the lead actress, drowning during the shoot.
The recent boom in 3D may be what convinced Jackson that the time was right for digitally shot and projected HFR (High Frame Rate) movies. HFR gives a "realer" look — which may or may not be a good thing.
Here's why: Some people have grumbled that HDTV is a sham, that, whatever its advantages, it makes film look like video. They're wrong: It's not the HD-ness that causes that effect; it's the frame rate. Those sets all have a switchable feature that digitally interpolates new images between the recorded frames. It's an artificial form of HFR; with 60 or 120 discrete images per second, it makes everything look real — way too real.
So the question is: How well does Jackson's HFR cinematography work? Reacting to some early criticisms, he has claimed that at first it looks weird, but after 10 minutes you get used to it and it looks great. Because he was on the defensive, I was skeptical; surprisingly, my reaction tracked very closely to his. The HFR and 3D make the images hyper-real, much closer to video than to film. But, by the time Gandalf shows up, you barely notice it on a conscious level.
I still prefer regular film — both for shooting and projecting — but there are intriguing possibilities here. For one thing, I'm not a big fan of 3-D, and I don't know how responsible that aspect may be for my doubts. Depending on the venue, you can see the film in various combinations of 2-D or 3-D, 24 frames per second or HFR; and IMAX or regular. I look forward to seeing it in 2-D/HFR/regular, if such an combo is available.
In terms of content, Jackson and his collaborators use up most of Tolkien's book in this one episode, so parts 2 and 3 remain a question mark. Even so, they have added quite a lot; after decades of fandom and years of making "The Lord of the Rings," they have absorbed a lot of Middle Earth, so the new material feels idiomatically correct. Unfortunately, it means it also feels too familiar, like a ghost writer's rerun of "The Lord of the Rings." It is generally absorbing, if overlong.
The performances are a huge plus; of the returnees from the trilogy, McKellan has by far the biggest part, and he doesn't disappoint. It's also nice to see Holm, Wood, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving reprising their roles. The 90-year-old Christopher Lee looks frail, but his voice is as magnificent as ever.
And Andy Serkis — whose Gollum, you might want to know in advance, doesn't show up until nearly the third hour — is at least as brilliant as he was in the trilogy. He will presumably show up in upcoming installments, even though all the Gollum material from the children's novel is exhausted here. Here's hoping Jackson and company find worthy ways to use him.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).