Hobbits and WETA and "Apes," oh my!

Okay, I won't lie.  Watching the production diary for "The Hobbit" was tremendously exciting.  Three years of promise starts right now, really.  Three years of curiosity and teases and glimpses and marketing, done the way really only Peter Jackson has ever mastered online.  Nobody else has ever done for a giant blockbuster the same level of outreach, something that Jackson and the amazing New Line team orchestrated on "Lord Of The Rings" and that Jackson did again with Universal on "King Kong."  And Peter Jackson standing in Bag End in 3D glasses is a mighty cheeky way to kick things off.

If the "Rings" films mean anything to you, there are some incredible things on display here.  Goblin tunnels?  Beneath the Misty Mountains?  OMG.  OMFG.  And if you don't know the story of "The Hobbit," then let me just say that you've got some wonderful adventure storytelling ahead of you.  I love Tolkien's giant triple-play, but I've always thought that "The Hobbit" is one of the best adventure stories ever written, self-contained and self-explanatory and just plain fun.  Thrilling.  Evocative. Suggestive.  And beautiful.

Oh, lord… Ian McKellan.  13 dwarves.  Martin FreemanAndy Serkis in the make-up chair.  WHO AM I KIDDING?  It's fantastic.  And the local New Zealand first day of filming blessing of the soundstages.  I love where they chose to start the shoot.  What a great thing to dig into, and now they've given themselves the rest of the process to nail down the performance in one of the most important and iconic scenes in the entire story.

"In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."  And the Ring.  And to be continued.  Oh, man, I'm on the hook.  I can't promise I'll link to each and every thing that gets posted for the next three years, but the big stuff is going to be the subject of much conversation here, I'm sure.  I hope you're as interested as I am.

This summer, of course, WETA Digital's work with Andy Serkis will be on display, and this morning in the trailer debut for the abruptly re-titled "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."  I'm hard-pressed to remember any other film outside this series that uses "of the" twice without even the common decency of a colon between them.  I guess at the last moment, they decided they needed the brand name in there.  At this point, you could just call it "Planet Of The Apes" again and no one would care or squawk at all.  Titles are just episode numbers on Planet Franchise, arbitrary things to tell you what order to file them on your Blu-ray shelf.  Whatever the title, the trailer today was an intriguing introduction of this iteration of the long-running series.

James Franco plays a scientist who heads a team working on a drug that repairs brain tissue, that essentially reverses the effects of time on the brain.  And in testing it on apes, they realize that one in particular seems to be getting exponentially smarter.  For the first time in the entire series, they're not using people in suits and make-up, instead opting to go full digital.  Knowing that, I'm sort of amazed by WETA's work on display here.  I don't love "King Kong," mainly because of script issues, but I think King Kong himself is one of the high watermarks for the digital age, a remarkable performance and animation hybrid that absolutely had a soul.  The work here has weight and heft and I believe absolutely lives on the far side of the uncanny valley.  WETA does eyes better than anyone in the business, and in this case, that's the key to making an ape seem hyper-intelligent.

Overall, it's been a big morning for the company, and 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. and MGM and everyone involved in both of the films should be excited.  One's almost at the finish line, and one's just getting underway, but I'd say they own the conversation today, and that's got to feel great.

"Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" will be in theaters August 5, 2011.

"The Hobbit Part 1" opens December 19, 2012, and "The Hobbit Part 2" opens in December of 2013.