Dir. Peter Jackson
(2012, PG-13, 169 minutes)

I was late to the Lord of the Rings party. While most critics and audiences seemed to be immediately smitten, I left the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring slightly disappointed – absorbed but not enthralled. So I was shocked by how overwhelmed I was by The Two Towers the next year, and then The Return of the King the year after that. If I consider the trilogy one long nine-hour film, I guess I’d say it just took three hours to get good.

Maybe I’ll feel the same way about The Hobbit, which has also been made into a trilogy, despite the fact the J.R.R. Tolkien only wrote one Hobbit novel, whose paperback length is only 319 pages according to one Amazon product description. By that standard, the 784-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been made into seven films, after which Harry, Ron, and Hermione would have been up for tenure at Hogwarts. But never mind.

The first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, follows the general pattern of the Lord of the Rings films, to the point of feeling slightly rote; after one lengthy trilogy, some of these troll dungeons, Orc battles, and ethereal Elvish meetings feel a bit repetitive, less like a new adventure than like slipping on a pair of old, comfortable shoes. The third film will be titled There and Back Again, but that could be the title of the whole trilogy.


Ian McKellen, as Gandalf the Grey

Nevertheless, director Peter Jackson is skilled at grand spectacle, and has a knack for combining larger-than-life elements with character-driven storytelling, a lesson George Lucas might have learned before creating the synthetic second Star Wars trilogy. There’s warmth here, an attention to personality; the actors are not merely props against a digital backdrop.

An advantage of the film’s 162-minute running time is the freedom to let scenes stretch their legs. Consider the reintroduction of Gollum (Andy Serkis), upon whom Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) stumbles during his mission to help the Dwarfs reclaim their homeland. For the purposes of the plot, the scene doesn’t need to last as long as it does, but by giving it room to breathe, Jackson allows Gollum to develop complexity. We see how dangerous he is, how at war with himself, how single-minded, and yet with a sense of playfulness that is both endearing and frightening.

The film was shot in 3D at 48 frames per second – as opposed to the usual 24 – and the latter effect is more evident than the former. Once you’re used to the glasses, you almost forget the 3D, but the higher frame rate has a drastic effect on the visual experience, though perhaps not for the better. Movements are more fluid, but in a way that seems unnatural. And combined with the 3D, which breaks up the visual elements into different planes of depth, sometimes the flesh-and-blood actors look even more isolated from the surrounding CGI elements.

I won’t rush to call high-frame-rate filmmaking a failure, however. It is a drastic shift from what our eyes have been trained to accept, but objectively speaking 48fps isn’t any more or less accurate a representation of what it’s capturing than 24fps. Perhaps in time our senses will acclimate to this format as they have acclimated in the past to sound, to color, to wide-screen, to high-definition. But if you don’t wish to take part in the revolution, I doubt the film would be diminished by seeing it with fewer frames – or fewer dimensions.

But perhaps you’d like to go for the ride. The journey of the title Hobbit may not be entirely unexpected, but perhaps yours will be.