A decade after Peter Jackson became a household name with his (and partner Fran Walsh’s) screen adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, the duo are preparing for another trilogy. This time, after years of on-again, off-again production woes and collaboration with one-time confirmed director Guillermo Del Toro, we’ve seen ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ – twice in one day, in fact. And it is good. And it is long. And it is exactly what a passionate fan of ‘The Hobbit’ – and JRR Tolkein, in fact, would want. But is it what moviegoers want?

The real draw here is Peter Jackson’s 48 frames-per-second, or high-framerate, projection. The film was produced in 3D and recorded at twice the framerate, giving it an impressively smooth and life-like image when projected. The result is as striking as it is divisive.

I’ve never been an advocate of 3D in film – until now. Such is the benefit of this crystal-clear, smooth format. Peter Jackson knew that 3D in film suffers from blurring, muddy colours and poor overall impact on the audience. With HFR in tow, The Hobbit offers hands-down the best 3D effects I’ve seen on the cinema screen.

In the same breath, it is also uncomfortably sharp and smooth when the effects are applied to slow, dramatic sequences. The effect drains the subtle, cinematic effect that a 24-frame movement adds. Suddenly every camera jiggle is noticeable, every errant hair or strange background detail is on full display. You may not like this. I found it distracting—until the action started, and then I lost myself in the wonder of clarity.

Martin Freeman is a wonderfully charismatic Bilbo Baggins. We also appreciated his knack for subtle comedic timing.

Martin Freeman is a wonderfully charismatic Bilbo Baggins. We also appreciated his knack for subtle comedic timing.

Our best advice? See The Hobbit twice: once in 24-frames-per-second for a traditional and sweeping cinematic experience, and again at 48 frames for the rollercoaster thrill of it all. It’s the way Peter Jackson intended it to be seen, and in the film’s largest moments, you’ll immediately understand why.

Of course, it’s the smaller moments – the performances – that make ‘The Hobbit’ more than just an excuse to peddle out more Middle-earth tales from the vault. This is still a listener’s tale as much as a mainstream spectacle.

Casting Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins was an inspired choice. The British comedian and star of ‘The Office’ and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ brings with him a balance of timing and wit, as well as impactful drama. This balancing act is critical of course, since the original Lord of the Rings played so well against viewers’ emotions, endearing Frodo and Sam’s journey with the audience.

With a principle cast of thirteen dwarves, only a handful of them are given any meaningful screen-time—as in the book. That said, each fill archetypal role and visual quirks that make them memorable, if not quotable.

However, it’s Sir Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis who deliver the standout performances. McKellen’s Gandalf is a model of gentle wisdom and surprising bursts of power. It’s almost comforting to watch him trade tender exchanges with the radiant (literally) Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and the always stirring Hugo Weaving as Elrond.

Andy Serkis once again recorded motion-capture performance and lends his voice to Gollum. Not only has the level of visual realism been upped to a ludicrously high level, but there’s range and menace to Serkis’ portrayal of the desperate cave-dweller and initial holder of the One Ring. His sequence with Bilbo, taken from the famed ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter of the book, is certainly one of the best in the film. Serkis was a busy guy; not only did he reprise his role, but he was also the second-unit director. Whew.

This is a sumptuously produced film, drawing upon 70 years of illustrations, daydreams and source material. The level of attention to detail exceeds even that of Jackson’s first trilogy. This is a work of beauty, rarely indulgent and always careful to delight fans first.

At 48 frames-per-second, you've never seen 3D filmmaking more worthwhile than this. Just be prepared to grit your teeth during dramatic moments.

At 48 frames-per-second, you’ve never seen 3D filmmaking more worthwhile than this. Just be prepared to grit your teeth during dramatic moments.

The Hobbit’s failings are, if anything, minimal and structural. This is around a third of the novel and, as such, the film’s narrative beats are a little off. There isn’t a traditional film structure here, though Jackson and co. have shoehorned in a few peaks and troughs. That left me wanting more – more structure, more pace to the opening, more urgency to the ending. Maybe that wanting is a good thing in the long-run (hey, you have my dollars for the next two years now), but given the nearly three hours’ run-time, I still felt like I was merely watching the set-up for the main attraction.

That main event is, of course, two films away.

Detractors will quickly point out that, between now and then, Peter Jackson will be essentially taking you on a foot-journey through Middle-earth. Whether you like taking the sometimes meandering scenic route comes down to your patience and your love of the series. Like ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Jackson has introduced extra villains and sub-plots to help broaden the tale and give fans more content – and that’s something I applaud.

As the start of a trilogy, there’s an understanding that, by the time the credits roll, things are just getting up-to-speed. It’s less self-contained than ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was, but that was an entire book condensed into one film, rather than a third of one story. Why would you expect otherwise?

‘The Hobbit’ is another ambitious, gorgeous and faithful trip into JRR’s writing – and because of this, it won’t win any new fans if you had no patience ten years ago. For those who do, you’ll definitely want to go there and back again.

4 stars

Patrick Kolan