The Reel: The Hobbit is really good, but not great

Ben Conniff

Last weekend I saw Peter Jackson’s long-anticipated first installment of his planned “The Lord of the Rings” prequel trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” This film tells the story of young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit of The Shire in Middle Earth, who sets out on an “unexpected journey” with a group of dwarfs to help them reclaim their mountain home from a gold-hungry dragon.

I had heard mixed reviews before getting a chance to see “The Hobbit,” and I had a feeling even beforehand that it couldn’t possibly be as good as Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings.” For the most part I was right.

“The Hobbit” has moments of eye-popping excitement, but on the whole it isn’t as riveting a story as “The Lord of the Rings,” at least not yet. This is a planned trilogy, and as the first part, it’s bound to be filled with more dry exposition than rousing climactic action.

There’s lots of talking and not a ton of doing, but when the “doing” happens, it’s spectacular. From a dangerous encounter with storm giants to a climactic confrontation with some goblins and orcs to gorgeous panoramic shots of the elf city of Rivendell, “The Hobbit” features some of the most stellar visuals you’re likely to see to date.

Back in the early 2000s, “The Lord of the Rings” became a benchmark in visual effects achievement. Nine years have passed since “The Return of the King,” and it’s easy to see how far the effects have come, even for a franchise that already includes stellar CG work. 

Rumor is, Jackson’s been trying a new trick that he hopes will change the game for effects-driven films like “The Hobbit”: shooting at a higher frame rate. Forty-eight frames per second to be exact. (Normal movies are filmed at 24.) The ultimate achievement of this technique is a more vivid, lifelike image to create a 3-D experience for the audience that feels as if they are present within the action as opposed to viewing it objectively onscreen from the sidelines.

I wasn’t able to see “The Hobbit” in its higher frame rate Saturday because of time constraints, but I will be returning to the theater soon to see it. Forty-eight frames per second is how the creators intended the film to be seen, and I intend to see it as such. 

So on the whole, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is really good, but not great. It’s a visual marvel that I’m certain will sweep awards in special effects categories from now through the Oscars in February.

I also enjoyed seeing some familiar faces with Elijah Wood returning as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Lord Elrond, and Andy Serkis as Gollum. That being said, it’s still not as strong a story as its three cinematic predecessors. I enjoyed it enough to see it again as the filmmakers intended it at 48 fps. I can’t wait to see what’s next in parts two and three.