The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage
Running Time: 169 minutes
Right from the start, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was destined to divide its audiences. Peter Jackson’s decisions to not only film at 48 frames-per-second — double the normal rate — but to also split J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novel into three full-length films were unabashedly controversial. As someone with fond recollections of reading The Hobbit in my youth, I met these announcements with large sighs and lowered expectations. Was it really necessary to stretch a 200-page novel into three epic films? Quite frankly, no, it wasn’t, but this move didn’t become the disaster it easily could have been.
After a bit of an expendable prologue documenting the demolition of a dwarf kingdom by the immense dragon, Smaug, the story begins as expected. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is sitting alone on his eleventy-first birthday, writing out the details of his crazy un-hobbitlike adventure some 60 years prior. We are then sent to follow along on this “unexpected journey,” as young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is granted with a surprise appearance by famed wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Soon thirteen dwarves, led by the proud Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are at Bilbo’s door ready to embark on a quest to take back their homeland. Per Gandalf’s recommendation, they have sought out Bilbo to fulfill their need for a “burglar.” After much deliberation, Bilbo eventually concedes to leave his hobbit hole, and so the real story begins.
Along the way, the crew runs into trolls, orcs, goblins and gigantic mountain creatures. There’s far more action than expected based on the source material, and one or two of the chase/battle scenes could have been omitted with little consequence. In fact, more content in general could have been removed entirely.
As expected by stretching out a relatively short novel into three long films, Peter Jackson has dipped deeper into the Middle Earth lore, including a handful of characters seldom mentioned or not found at all in the book. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) has a noteworthy role despite only being mentioned in passing in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Orc chieftain, Azog, also has an expanded role, predominantly to give the film its own central antagonist. This is not a faithful adaptation of the book by any means, which can be both a positive or negative depending on one’s viewpoint. Those wanting to see Tolkien’s words brought to life without any changes will be disappointed, but those who enjoy spending as much time in Middle Earth as possible will surely get a kick out of this.
For me, I’m somewhere in the middle. Certainly a few scenes could have been excluded in order to make a more compact, arguably greater film, but damn if I didn’t get sucked into this fantasy world. This is a beautifully realized vision with well-designed characters and environments, and the special effects are amazing. The difference between the CGI used in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is mind-boggling — this is especially notable during the film’s centerpiece, the much-loved riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum. Although he looked great before, Gollum really comes to life here, with his wild-eyes and spastic movements. Once again, Andy Serkis delivers an incredible performance.
Now, most people will know right away whether they want to see The Hobbit or not, but the big question here is: should I see it with the high frame rate? Yes, yes you should. I had little interest in this new gimmick, but was persuaded to indulge by some friends. I’m glad I did. Seeing the film in 3D at 48 frames-per-second (not to mention with the fantastic Dolby ATMOS sound system) was an experience unlike any other I have had in a theater, and it is absolutely worth checking out if only for the sheer novelty of it all. The general consensus has largely been a “love it or hate it” type deal, and I’m surprised that I fall in the former camp. It takes some time to get used to the quicker movements and video game-like visuals, but the high frame rate makes the 3D much more bearable.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t a perfect film, but I respect Peter Jackson for trying something new while undoubtedly pleasing countless fans begging for more Tolkien. Despite its excess length, I greatly enjoyed my time in the theater. Anyone even remotely curious in the film should seek it out, preferably with the higher frame rate.