Martin Freeman as the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Martin Freeman as the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (ap photo)

If you were one of the few that happened to see The Lord of the Rings trilogy, brace yourself for a return to Middle-Earth -- though it isn't the same as the one you may remember.

Peter Jackson emerged from his personal movie paradise in New Zealand with the dazzling, if a bit disappointing, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a three-part film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel.

It follows the quest of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a spoiled, lethargic hobbit who enjoys puffing his pipe and telling visitors not to get dirt on his rug. He's recruited by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to come on a potentially dangerous journey to the Lonely Mountain, with the contractual understanding that any decapitation or incineration would be covered by his HMO. He joins a group of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who seeks to reclaim the dwarves' mountain home and mines of gold treasure from Smaug, the dragon version of Goldmember.

While Bilbo shares the same unwilling sense of inertia pulling him towards his quest as his nephew Frodo did in "LOTR," he's a far more compelling main character. Frodo had a more burdensome task (Bilbo's role in Gandalf's plan isn't even totally clear yet), but Bilbo has a better overall arc, actually changing over the course of the film whereas Frodo stayed his same wimpy self the entire time.


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Aside from Bilbo, however, rich characters are few and far between. The best ones overlap with the previous series, like Gandalf, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), who gets a great "Ooo, we know you end up being a bad guy" entrance. But the Company of Dwarves is too random, with Thorin the only one whose personality and look stick out from the squat group. While Aragorn and Legolas weren't the deepest characters, you could at least tell the difference between the two. But between Bombur, Bifur and Bofur (seriously)? No chance.

The movie's exposition-heavy first half is a slog to get through at times. But the action picks up soon afterwards with cool battle scenes and the arrival of Gollum (Andy Serkis), who is somehow even more impressive than he was the first time around. It's in these scenes where Jackson's controversial decision to film at twice the typical frame-rate is the most apparent. There is an adjustment period, with some people seeming to have a higher tolerance than others for the striking color and almost-too-real clarity 48 FPS offers. But if you can handle it, as well as the 3D, you're in for some fascinating sights: the depth of Bilbo's hallway in his Shire home, thousands of goblins sprinting downhill like the wildebeests in The Lion King, and one scary-looking Orc. And when you make it to the end, don't worry: there's only about six more hours to go.

Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.

 

5 things you need to know

1. The Backstory
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel. It’s directed by Peter Jackson, who helmed The Lord of the Rings, which takes place after the events of The Hobbit. It is the first of a three-part series, which the studio decided to do purely for creative reasons and no financial ones whatsoever.
2. The Creatures
  • The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, takes place in Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s fantasy universe that’s filled with all sorts of different races. Aside from men (a.k.a. the most boring race), there are the immortal elves, the pudgy, bearded dwarves, and the hobbits, who are smaller than dwarves and can’t grow beards but have hairy, freakishly big feet. There are also goblins, dragons, trolls, giant birds and Orcs, basically the nameless henchmen of some sort of evil cartel in Middle-earth.
3. The Characters
  • The titular hobbit is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who gets roped into a quest by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). He joins a group of 13 dwarves led by the ultimate bearded warrior dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Along the way, they meet up with head elves Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), fellow wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the bipolar sadist hoarder Gollum (Andy Serkis).
4. The Quest
  • The Company of Dwarves begin their journey to the Lonely Mountain, their former home which they want to reclaim from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), who also possesses the dwarves’ vast supply of gold treasure. When Bilbo unwittingly meets Gollum, he finds out about the Ring of Power, which will eventually change his life forever.
5. The Framerate
  • Jackson chose to film the series not just in 3D, but in 48 frames-per-second, which is twice the speed of the standard 24 frames-per-second. The result is a more fluid picture (almost like you’re watching an ultra high-definition TV), but it has its detractors. Many say that the film somehow seems too real, in that the sets look too much like sets and that the smoothness gives off a “soap-opera look.”