‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’: Great expectations

December 7, 2012

My heart sank when I heard that Peter Jackson, having already made the greatest fantasy trilogy of all time in “The Lord of the Rings,” was going back to the well once more, this time taking the reins of “The Hobbit” from Guillermo del Toro.

And then that it was going to be two movies, actually. No, wait – a full trilogy. In 3D.

Did I say my heart sank? Submerged is more like it. Where Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy seemed like a colossal hubristic gamble – which wound up paying off magnificently – his idea for “The Hobbit” sounded more like an exercise in vanity.

So, yes, I felt like a nay-sayer walking into the screening – and emerged a believer after seeing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” opening next week (12/14/12). Jackson convinced me once again that, despite an occasional overload of whimsy, he remains a director capable of transforming Tolkien’s flat writing of a fanciful story into a sweeping adventure full of impossible sights and frequent excitement. I walked out wishing I could immediately start watching the next film, which is how I felt after each of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

But not because of the 48p technology in which this film was shot and is being shown in some venues. Shooting at 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24 adds visual information to each image that renders it with startling clarity. The effect is not unlike the first time you saw a really revealing high-definition TV image.

That’s good and bad. It’s bad because, as much as this particular brand of digital imaging seems to put you right into the image (in, yes, 3D), it does have the TV look – what I’ve seen referred to as “the soap-opera effect” and have heard compared to the image quality of a reality TV show. Are we ready to watch movies that look like TV? Or does that subconscious TV association devalue it in our mind?

Well, let me just say this: I didn’t care. Because “The Hobbit” entranced me in a way that made me forget about the technology and just plug into the movie itself. By the end, I wasn’t even resenting the clunky 3D glasses.

I realize there are a lot of people out there who will resist and even dismiss this film because of its subject matter: supernatural doings in an imaginary kingdom populated by wizards, trolls, dwarves, elves, dragons and goblins. Interestingly, while I have no time for horror films built around supernatural creatures like ghosts and vampires, I’m a sucker for a good fantasy tale.

“The Hobbit” is a slim volume, about the quest of a clan of dwarves to take back the mountain that once served as their home and kingdom, from the dragon that took it from them. The hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is recruited for the adventure by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), though Bilbo is reluctant at first to tag along.

But Jackson and cowriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens use material from other Tolkien troves to expand the universe of the film to include flashbacks from all manner of characters. We get more dwarf history, more elf history – more Middle Earth, period.

We also get Gollum (Andy Serkis), who made his first appearance in this book as a cave-dwelling former Hobbit corrupted by the ring of power. His encounter with Bilbo triggers everything that happens in the subsequent “Lord of the Rings” books.

Jackson knows how to film action so you know where you are in it, who’s doing what to who. No, I couldn’t really tell the elaborately-behaired dwarves apart (with the exception of James Nesbit’s Bofur, because of Nesbit’s twinkly eyes and raffish Irish cadences) – but that didn’t matter, at least not in this installment.

And I continue to be amazed by Jackson’s sense of scale and design. “The Hobbit” is full of moments in which the characters are dwarfed in a scene by the intimidating grandeur of their environment – at one point standing on what looks like the edge of the world, off which literally dozens of waterfalls seem to tumble into eternity.

Yes, the opening half-hour or so seems like so much throat-clearing and scene-setting. But once these dwarves, accompanied by Bilbo and Gandalf, hit the road, “The Hobbit” takes off and doesn’t come down until the credits roll.

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