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    Andy Serkis reprises his "Lord of the Rings" role as the voice and motion-capture figure of Gollum in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

Movie review: First part of 'The Hobbit' satisfying

Published: Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 16TICKET
Last Modified: Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 - 9:49 am

The first hour of the ultimately satisfying "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is purely setup.

It entails dwarf and hobbit history, ample exposition and the long process of coaxing hobbit-hole homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) into joining 13 warrior dwarves in a quest to reclaim a lost dwarf kingdom.

It takes that same hour for a viewer to acclimate to the movie's higher frame rate – 48 frames per second, double the 24-frames-per-second rate of other movies.

Joined with 3-D, the high frame rate, or HFR (available in some theaters; most will show the movie at 24 frames per second in 3-D or 2-D) is supposed to produce crisper images and less blur.

It does. But that does not mean the visuals are revolutionary in appearance. "An Unexpected Journey" resembles a videotaped stage play broadcast on PBS or the BBC. People are vivid, but so are costumes and backdrops, lending the whole thing a stagey quality until your eye and mind adjust to the format.

Tolkien class at Wisconsin university proves popular

The movie's first act assumes a getting-to-know-you quality on a few levels. Thus, it brings an awareness of moviemaking that distracts from the story of "Unexpected Journey," based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel and set 60 years before "The Lord of the Rings."

But as anyone who marveled or harrumphed at the multiple endings to "Return of the King" can attest, Peter Jackson is a filmmaker of many, many acts.

"Unexpected Journey," the first of three Jackson "Lord of the Rings" prequels based on "The Hobbit" novel, runs nearly three hours. That gives Jackson, returning to Middle-Earth nine years after completing his "Rings" movie trilogy, plenty of time to revive its magic.

He revives it by triggering our good will toward the "Rings" trilogy. He evokes the trilogy's tone and its rhythms.

"An Unexpected Journey," like the "Rings" films, offers camaraderie among scruffy heroes on a quest, perilous ledge-walking and ledge-hanging, and battles with seemingly unstoppable villains composed of flesh and/or landscape come to life.

The action scenes are beautifully choreographed, and the higher frame rate sometimes makes them easier to follow, as Jackson intended. These scenes also – despite Bilbo's cuteness and the film's children's-book origins – can be brutal.

But Jackson offsets the movie's overall intensity with a red-horizon visit to the elven kingdom of Rivendell. There, Bilbo and the dwarves find New Age-y respite among the elves, who are as pretty, serene and blah as ever.

No offense, Cate Blanchett. It's nice to see you again. It's also great to see Ian McKellen, exuding great warmth and wisdom as wizard Gandalf the Grey.

But the most welcome reappearance is by Gollum, the giant-eyed obsessive made so lifelike in the "Rings" movies by computer-generated imagery and the movement and voice work of actor Andy Serkis.

Gollum has benefited more than any other aspect of "An Unexpected Journey" from advances in filmmaking technology over the past decade. The character is even more emotive and agile than in the "Rings" movies. His scenes are amazing.

As Bilbo, Freeman makes a fine entry point for the audience. Freeman lends his hobbit character a touch of the self-awareness and self-effacement he brought to Tim, his character on the British "The Office." Bilbo is relatable because Freeman's expressions show us how uncomfortable, if also necessary, it is to take risks in one's life.

Richard Armitage ably fills the Viggo Mortensen handsome-warrior role as Thorin Oakenshield, the tough, determined dwarf leader.

Not too long after you get past the frame-rate issues and warm up to "An Unexpected Journey," awareness arrives that the "Hobbit" film trilogy itself is just warming up. Given that the novel runs only 300 pages, the prospect of six more hours of movie does not exactly get the blood pumping.

But Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have tapped 125 pages of notes and appendices Tolkien made to "The Hobbit" after its publication. Plus, Jackson always rewards patience, and as the director of high-quality films ranging from "Heavenly Creatures" to "King Kong" to this one, he also warrants audience confidence.


Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm

Director: Peter Jackson

169 minutes

PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)

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