By the time Peter Jackson wrapped his sterling Lord of the Rings trilogy, audiences had spent nearly 12 hours in Middle Earth, marveling at the dense cinematic landscape. Against odds, Jackson out-Lucased George Lucas in the meticulousness of the world he created, and it was only a matter of time before J.R.R. Tolkien's even more popular—and considerably lighter—The Hobbit hit the screen.
History proves it's sometimes best to hand over the reins (The Empire Strikes Back, anyone?), and The Hobbit initially found a perfect combo with Jackson as producer and Pan's Labyrinth's Guillermo del Toro as director. But it went to hell when the film's rights were hogtied by MGM's financial woes. When the smoke cleared, moviegoers received news they secretly kind of wanted but were vocally damning: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit.
Yet anyone expecting another LOTR installment or, even worse, The Phantom Hobbit, will be bowled over by the spectacle Jackson has produced. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes his penchant for sprawling panoramic shots, large-scale melees and lingering shots of small men gazing into the distance and distills it through the eyes of young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), prodded into an adventure by the wizard Gandalf (a returning Ian McKellen, clearly enjoying himself). The mission: join a group of dwarves led by fallen king Thorin (a gruff Richard Armitage) to reclaim their mountain kingdom and its treasures from a gigantic dragon.
Jackson tells this tale from the perspective of an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) as he scribes a book about his adventure. The choice to adopt the sense of wonder of the inexperienced Bilbo as he experiences goblin wars and sentient rocks adds to the whimsical feeling of discovery throughout. "All good stories deserve embellishment," Gandalf tells the young hobbit at the onset of their quest, and it's safe to say the film delivers in a tall-tale sense, from a game of wits with snarling cockney trolls to the infamous "Riddles in the Dark" sequence with a never-more-frightening Gollum (motion-captured by Andy Serkis to perfection), executed with the exaggerated ferocity of a late-night campfire tale.
The tonal shifts are augmented by a technological gamble: The Hobbit was filmed at 48 frames per second—double traditional film—which renders the image so crisp and hyper-realistic you could almost reach out and touch the creatures onscreen. This is a blessing and a curse, because it has the effect of making real landscapes look like CGI, and sets look like they were shipped in from a 1980s BBC costume drama. Some have complained of sickness as a result of the faster-moving pans and sped-up feel, but the crispness of detail is undeniable.
Technical risks aside, it's hard to take too much umbrage at a film this crackling. After a slow and decidedly kiddie start, it moves at the lightning pace of a chase movie intercut with stellar mini-adventures involving orcs astride wolves, gigantic spiders, soaring eagles and reanimated kings. For a film accused of padding itself to make more money, The Hobbit is a fairly breathless piece of action filmmaking masquerading as a costume drama.
It's all anchored firmly by Freeman's assured performance, which exudes charm and childlike fear. Bilbo's odyssey doubles as an obvious parable—even the smallest creatures can have a huge impact if their hearts are big enough—but Freeman adds deep layers of trepidation, humor and courage. It's not the advanced technology and improved special effects that make this feel like a completely different take on Middle Earth. Those certainly help, but it's seeing this world through Freeman's eyes that makes The Hobbit spring to life. From the little man's perspective, it all seems new again.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, CineMagic, Lake Twin, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place, Tigard, Roseway, St. Johns.