One thing you’ll hear a lot about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that it’s the world’s first feature to be shot in high-definition 3-D at 48 frames per second, instead of the standard 24. And if you think moving twice as fast means getting there in half the time, this is not the movie for you.
Early reports were cautious: It looked weird, made people queasy. Deal-breaker? Nah, although not necessarily a ground-breaker either, or at least not in any immediately obvious way. Maybe it’ll be obvious later, once you’ve been weaned from old-fashioned eye guidance and can see things in the new way, with both dramatic span and visual depth stretched out beyond reason toward infinity. Just as the worldwide box-office total for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy wasn’t quite $3 billion, but close enough, so the running time of this first of Jackson’s prequels isn’t quite three hours, but close enough. You must try to understand that you now are dealing with quantities and capacities greater than your mind has wanted to comprehend.
You already know that a series of still pictures, seen quickly enough, can seem like a moving picture. Persistence of vision is the familiar phrase, which also must describe the determination it takes to adapt 1,400 pages of fiction into a nine-hour movie trilogy and then, a few years later, adapt 300 pages of related fiction into, well, another nine-hour movie trilogy. As befits a conspicuously elongated part one of three, whose scenes often play out while also being narrated, The Hobbit’s doubled frame rate is a glaring amplification, a willful sort of anti-efficiency.
In the distance there’s a mountain. In the mountain there’s a city. In the city there’s a castle. In the castle there’s a dragon. Before the dragon, there were dwarves, but they got displaced, by fire-breathing force. Since then the dwarves haven’t felt great about the elves, who didn’t help during that dragon attack. But a certain hobbit, vouched for by the dwarves’ old wizard friend, might be of use to them. He’d rather not, but the movie is about him and there you have it. An impending quest involves fending off orcs, goblins, trolls, giant spiders, mountains come combatively to life, and one familiar tragic schizoid little creep whose jewelry is unnaturally important to him. Also, some elves do get involved, for only they can read the moon runes.
Even appreciators might reasonably feel silly summarizing this stuff. Even J.R.R. Tolkien, its inventor, seemed, at least initially, to be hurrying through it. Say what you will about Jackson — here scripting with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens as usual, plus Guillermo del Toro, whom he hired to direct and then nudged aside — but at least he does take ownership. To come away thinking you really ought to visit New Zealand someday is not the same as thinking you really ought to brush up your Tolkien, but maybe it’s better.
Like LOTR before it, The Hobbit manages not just CGI-enhanced spectacles, but also some invitingly affectionate ensemble charisma. This takes a while, and seems less to do with the dwarves, too few of which even register, than with Martin Freeman in the role of Jackson’s eponymous diminutive. Well, the movie is about him, and there you have it. As he’s made so appealingly clear in the original version of The Office and more recently Sherlock, Freeman excels at comporting himself with kooky company, particularly by means of self-effacement. Here, when told, “I’m sorry I doubted you,” he quickly replies, “No: I would’ve doubted me too.” Well, isn’t this just the sort of humility you’d hope for in your hobbits?
Obediently the movie also provides a few of the previous trilogy’s other human touches: the patient wizardry of Ian McKellen; the elfin nobility of Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving; the moistly sibilant voice and motion-captured form of Andy Serkis. Ultimately, yes, it does look weird, and it is too long even before becoming a trilogy, but at least it’s less like watching someone else play a video game (albeit in unprecedented HD) than it might have been. That enhanced digital imagery has a vaguely fluorescent chill, but at least the film it’s in seems like a promising warm-up.