Welcome back to Middle-Earth. It has been nearly a decade since writer-director Peter Jackson last set foot on J.R.R. Tolkien's hallowed ground, signing off on a spectacular trilogy of films adapted from the British author's Lord of the Rings novels. There were box office billions and well-earned Oscars aplenty and then two subsequent Jackson projects — King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009) — that suggested the filmmaker might have been stunted by his own mega-success. (With its distended Depression-era prologue and a running time nearly twice its 1933 predecessor, Kong in particular seemed as thick around the middle as its director now appeared slim.) So it was no real surprise when Jackson announced he would produce two films based on Tolkien's The Hobbit — the single 1937 volume that launched the Middle-Earth mythology — and even less surprising when Jackson pulled a Jay Leno on his own hand-picked director, Guillermo del Toro, in order to hold the reins himself. (Del Toro retains a co-screenwriting credit for his contribution.)
Of course, succession is never a tidy business, nor is that of making prequels into beloved franchises. Rest assured, Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey perpetrates no Jar Jar-size transgressions. Rather, it's reverential to a fault, with the director and his regular collaborators Fran Walsh (Jackson's wife) and Philippa Boyens hewing so closely to Tolkien's slender text that, at the end of three hours, we're barely 100 pages in, with mere sentences on the page having been inflated into entire sequences on screen. The detailed appendices Tolkien included with the final LOTR story, The Return of the King, have also been plundered for inspiration, and the result is a journey whose most unexpected element is just how little ground it covers. (Recently, it was announced that the two planned Hobbit films will now be three, with the next installments set to arrive in 2013 and 2014, respectively.)
Set some 60 years before the events depicted in LOTR, The Hobbit tells of another unassuming Shire-dweller's grand mythopoeic adventure in the company of wizards, elves, and — this time around — a merry band of 13 dwarfs. The hobbit in question is one Bilbo Baggins — uncle of Frodo — played to great effect in the LOTR films by Ian Holm and here, as a younger man, by the likable Martin Freeman (Sherlock's Iraq vet Watson). A fussy, pipe-smoking dandy of minimal ambition and even less curiosity, Bilbo is shaken from his life of leisure by a visit from that wise, wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). And if there is one inviolable constant in this first chapter of The Hobbit, it's McKellen's delectable mixture of world-weariness and coquettish vanity, which might be the default posture of any British acting great resigned to Hollywood's inexhaustible need for sorcerers, mutants, and Jedi masters.
Gandalf wants Bilbo to join the dwarfs on their journey to reclaim Erebor, a once-prosperous dwarf kingdom long ago decimated and claimed by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, which now lies in wait, guarding its hoards of gold. But The Hobbit takes nearly an hour just to get out of Bilbo's hobbit hole, with much of that time devoted to a long night of drunken dwarf merriment (including not one but two musical numbers) during which you can just about feel the hair on your feet growing longer. For all their Wagnerian bombast, the LOTR films proceeded at a clip, with lots of story to tell and spirited new characters lurking around every bend. There was exuberance in the filmmaking, too, as if Jackson — who cut his teeth on some of the most outlandish, low-budget splatterfests of the 1980s and '90s — still couldn't quite believe he'd been allowed to make these movies. They were generous entertainments that you didn't have to be a Tolkien convert to enjoy — they made one out of you. The Hobbit, by contrast, feels distinctly like a members-only affair. It's self-conscious monument art, but is the monument to Tolkien or to Jackson himself?
Even once Bilbo and company take to the hobbit highway, the pacing is leisurely verging on lethargic, fitfully enlivened by meetings with colorful beasties: giant, cockney-accented trolls that resemble talking phalli; a goitered goblin king (amusingly voiced by Dame Edna him/herself, Barry Humphries); and stone giants that give new meaning to the expression "mountain men." A few welcome LOTR faces also pop up along the way, including elvish royalty Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the magisterial Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman, not yet corrupted by the forces of darkness. As for the baker's dozen of dwarfs, with the exception of their noble leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), they never register as more than an amorphous, knee-high mass.
It should go without saying that all of this is executed at an exceptional level of craft, with Jackson and the real-life wizards of his Weta Workshop once more bringing Middle-Earth to life with rich detailing and seamless integrations of live action and CGI. But in the moment of Avatar, Life of Pi, and Harry Potter, such technical mastery is ever more the rule, not the exception. So Jackson has one-upped the competition by making The Hobbit the first feature film to be shot, in 3-D, at 48 frames per second. What that means, in layman's terms, is that when the cameras rolled on The Hobbit, the film (or, rather, the high-definition video) was moving at twice the speed — and hence capturing twice the information — of both traditional 35mm film production and of the "24p" HD video that is rapidly hastening film's extinction. And your reaction to this, in layman's terms, is likely to be either "Wow, cool!" or "WTF?"
Available for viewing only in select cinemas in major cities (the rest will feature a standard 24-frame presentation), this "high-frame rate" Hobbit features exceptionally sharp, plasticine images the likes of which we might never have seen on a movie screen before, but which do resemble what we see all the time on our HD television screens, whether it's Sunday Night Football, Dancing with the Stars, or a game of Grand Theft Auto. (Indeed, most TVs now have a menu setting that can, if you so desire, lend this look to everything you watch — a setting appropriately christened by some gearheads as the "soap opera effect.") Whereas video-shot "films" have labored for years to approximate the look of celluloid, Jackson goes whole hog in the opposite direction, the idea being that this acute video quality comes closer to the way the human eye perceives reality. Fair enough, but the reality Jackson conjures isn't quite the one he intends: Instead of feeling like we've been transported to Middle-Earth, it's as if we've dropped in on Jackson's New Zealand set, trapped in an endless "making of" documentary, waiting for the real movie to start.
For the record, I returned to see The Hobbit a second time, at 24 frames, and found it more aesthetically pleasing but no more dramatically engaging. At any speed, the movie only springs to full life late in the day, during the first meeting of Bilbo and the tragic creature who will come to be known as Gollum (once again played by the sublime Andy Serkis), a hobbit reduced to a quivering mass by his fidelity to a certain gold ring. Suddenly, in one long scene consisting of nothing more than two characters trying to outwit each other in a game of riddles, Jackson the storyteller seems to overtake Jackson the technocrat. The old magic returns, and for a fleeting moment, The Hobbit feels truly necessary, a triumph of art over commerce.