Despite a nine-year break from Middle-earth, it only takes a few bars from a Howard Shore score to take us swiftly back to the Shire, to thoughts of evil eyes and all-powerful rings. It’s almost Pavlovian in its effect; I'm craving second breakfasts.
But as the familiar refrain rolls over the opening credits of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, announcing the start of a new trilogy, that’s where the similarities end. While the Lord of the Rings series was dark and menacing, The Hobbit is a children’s story, a prequel published by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1937 that dabbles in dragons instead of World War II metaphors. Fuzzy-footed hobbit Bilbo Baggins, played here (and for the next three years) by the affable Martin Freeman, is off “on an adventure!” with Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) and a parade of dwarves with bulbous schnozzes. The mission is simple: Kill the dragon that usurped the dwarves’ home and recover their stockpile of gold (the kind of pile begging for a Scrooge McDuck swan dive). Even with the holy trinity of Peter Jackson, life and producing partner Fran Walsh, and writer Philippa Boyens back on the job, the tone is lighter, the characters one-dimensional, and any complexity or layers come via 3D.
Which brings us to the main attraction. What does a movie shot at 48 frames per second—instead of the standard 24—actually look like? Well…remember when TV shows were first broadcast in HD? And all of a sudden you could see every wrinkle, flaw, or lip liner crease on, say, an ESPN sportscaster’s face? It’s that disconcerting. It takes nearly half the movie to adjust to the unforgiving sharper images—and unfortunately, that first hour or so is as leisurely as a tea party, with multiple backstories (the legend of the dragon Smaug, and an appearance by an elder Bilbo and Frodo) before arriving at the story’s true beginning. I’ve never seen so many people get up to use the bathroom at the start of a movie.
Meanwhile, Jackson seems to be taking a page from James Cameron’s book and delights with childlike wonder in overindulgent visual effects—a “see how cool this is?!” kite flying in 3D, or an unfunny subplot with the wizard Radagast the Brown zooming through the woods on a CGI sled dragged by rabbits. There’s plenty of fat to trim from this first installment—not surprising, since they’re turning one 288-page novel into three movies, sustaining the New Zealand tourism industry for the better part of the decade. But lest we forget how slowly the first Lord of the Rings seemed to start—and how quickly things picked up—there’s still a lot of potential for The Hobbit. We see that when Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) slinks in and engages Bilbo in a riddle war, or with studly British actor Richard Armitage adding gravitas as the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo isn’t nearly as wide-eyed as Elijah Wood’s Frodo; we can stand to follow him into 2014. And even though the merry band of adventurers has already stared down trolls, goblins, and orcs in the first movie, we’ve only reached the end of chapter 6, and the road to Lonely Mountain is long and treacherous.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in theaters December 14.