You may be seized by a strong urge to flee the theater at the start of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shouting “My eyes! My eyes!” The combination of 48 frames per second cinematography — double what standard movies use — together with the sensational 3D is initially a bit overwhelming. We see too much. Are we really supposed to be able to study Gandalf’s nose hairs so carefully? Why do all the sets and props and costumes look so fake? Shouldn’t the higher resolution make the effects work better? When is the endless (45 minutes) dinner scene that opens the movie going to end, anyway?
My advice: Tough it out. There are people who claim to see no difference between 24 and 48 frame rates, and to them, I’d recommend an unexpected journey to the eye doctor. For everyone else, you need to give the movie time for your eyes to get used to the extra detail, and once the characters step outside the home of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and set out on a trek to reclaim a mountain of gold stolen from them by a dragon, the effect is actually quite wonderful. Vistas are impossibly detailed: You don’t just see craggy mountains but the boulders atop them, too. Jackson, who knows Middle Earth intimately after making The Lord of the Rings, is careful to avoid showing you things you’ve seen before. There’s no redundancy to the movie, no feeling that you’ve been to this particular stretch of the world before.
Bilbo and his companions — the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves — don’t require the memorization of names and elaborate back stories. The Hobbit was written for children, and its narrative is simple; Jackson is the one who has inflated the book into a three-film epic. But aside from that opening scene, there wasn’t a moment in the film that I wasn’t enraptured by the cannibal trolls and the armies of orcs and the enormous wolves and all the other ferocious enemies the director throws at his heroes. A fistfight between two gigantic monsters made out of rocks is one of the most amazing sights of any movie this year. And Jackson (unlike Michael Bay) knows how to shoot the action so you can enjoy it and marvel at its visual beauty. In terms of images alone, this is one of the most beautiful fantasy films ever made.
Because he has two more movies to go, Jackson keeps the pace slow — the film ends with the book’s sixth chapter, which is amazing considering it runs almost three hours — and invents more than just a few scenes. But by the time Bilbo makes his initial encounter with the poor, gray-skinned Gollum (Andy Serkis), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has sunk its hooks in deep. I was dreading having to go back into this universe — weren’t the previous 11 hours of Tolkien movies enough? — but this film feels lighter, more agreeable and although simpler, more sheer fun. There will be opportunities to see the picture in regular 24 frames per second, but I recommend going the whole hog and sampling what Jackson has come up with — a new way to watch movies and a new take on a universe that seemed to have exhausted its narrative possibilities.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Andy Serkis.
Director: Peter Jackson.
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro. Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 169 minutes. Fantasy violence. Opens Friday Dec. 14 at area theaters.