It's been 10 long years since Frodo plunged Gollum and the One Ring into the lake of fire and Viggo Mortensen sang that strange dirge as he was crowned king of all humans. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise was immensely successful, both in artistic merit (the final installment won Best Picture) and global box-office success. It took just one trilogy to rule them all, so it's no surprise that a film— or, once again, three films—would be made of The Hobbit, the short fantasy book from J.R.R. Tolkien that would spawn Lord of the Rings.
First off, The Hobbit lacks the epic majesty of Lord of the Rings. But perhaps that's as it should be. Tolkien's book is really designed for younger readers—it's considerably lighter, in tone and length, than Lord, and it's tough, yet not unreasonable, to compare the two.
That said, a lot has changed in the last decade. Take 3-D, for instance. The Hobbit is almost impossible to discuss without getting wonky, because, at the end of the day, the movie's claim to fame will be the technology Jackson used to make it. This is the first major feature film to be shot at 48 frames per second, rather than the standard 24, which gives it an entirely unique look and feel, should you choose to see it in 3-D and in that format.
So, what's that like? Well, I'd read that some people got headaches, but that wasn't my experience at all. The thing is, 48 frames per second is like hyper-realism—it feels not unlike watching a Blu-ray on your awesome TV at home. It's challenging for your brain to process, because we've spent our lives watching things that were shot at half the speed. I suspect that in 20 years, every movie will be shot like this, and the technology will have improved so much that it will be—in a word—awesome. That's not to say that this new experience is a negative one. But it is unfamiliar, and I think the new format will be off-putting for some. To that I say: Get over it. The future is now.
If you've read this far, we might as well address the story. Jackson tries to stay true to his source material, which features the Wandering Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) showing up at the door of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to take him on a grand adventure. Soon, 13 dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) are in the picture, too, because they want Bilbo to be among the band of smallish people who take back the dwarves' ancestral mountain, which has been in the hands of the dragon Smaug for more than half a century. An epic road trip, violence and invisible rings ensue, but you should know all that by now.
There's much to love about The Hobbit, but the forced humor among the dwarves and some other creatures isn't part of that. There are many familiar actors, including Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm and Cate Blanchett, who appeared in the previous trilogy, and the motion-capture work of Andy Serkis as Gollum has only gotten better. The Hobbit is far more enjoyable than The Fellowship of the Ring, because it moves beyond the let's-get-the-band-together and gets straight to let's-slice-up-some-goblins (that sequence is one of the film's finest).
My biggest problem with the movie, however, is Freeman. I'm a fan of his work in the original version of The Office and the terrific BBC series Sherlock, but I felt as though he was in contemporary England while everyone else was in Middle-earth. Perhaps that's just me; there'll be two more movies, which come out in December 2013 and 2014, for him to prove me wrong.