Here's the dilemma in reviewing "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Do you focus on the story and characters in the movie, the format of the movie, or both? Talk to anyone who has seen the film, that is not only in 3-D, but many are choosing to see it in the new 48 frames per second format, and the first comments are about the "look," not the story, the characters or the acting. And the "look" is something to talk about.
Fortunately the beloved Tolkien tale is so well known that for most, it will suffice to say that director Peter Jackson introduces us to Bilbo Baggins as he is being deluged with dwarves who, at the invitation of Gandalf, knock at his door, make themselves at home and eat all his food. They are all clearly there for a purpose and it seems our little Hobbit is the only one who has no clue as to what is happening.
Ian McKellen, who again steps into the role of Gandalf, eventually lays out the situation to Bilbo, who is played by Martin Freeman. A quest is to begin to try to regain the dwarves' mountain home that has been taken by Smaug, an evil dragon who thrives on gold. None of the dwarves know why in the world Gandalf seems so fixed on bringing the very reluctant Bilbo along. But eventually the band embarks and the unexpected adventure begins.
Remember, although this is a lengthy film, clocking in at 169 minutes, "The Unexpected Journey" only deals with a third of the tale. We'll have to wait until 2013 for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," and "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" will be released in 2014.
The cast is simply terrific. McKellen, one of the most accomplished and versatile actors alive, reprises his beloved wizard role beautifully. Freeman, with a natural elfish persona, is perfect as Bilbo and the gaggle of dwarves, each with quirks, charm and agenda, are delightful. The critical role of Thorin, descendent of kings who leads the dwarves in their quest, is played by Richard Armitage. No one is more skeptical of Bilbo's purpose than him and Armitage walks a fine line between raging warrior and wise leader.
Finally, let's talk technicality. Everybody is have a hard time describing the 48 frames per second impact. It's rich and deep while appearing flat. It has a clarity and focus that you've never seen before while lacking luster and cinematic "pop." Everything I have just said is contradictory, I know. It's almost like a dessert that is so rich you can't decide if you like it or not. There is no doubt that the first few minutes take some real adjustment, but you do, eventually, start to slip into it with varying degrees of enthusiasm. I have to admit that I would like to see the movie in traditional 24 frames just to make the comparison.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the dilemma is, do you focus on the format and the technical aspects or on the story and performances? I hope I've split the difference.
I'm giving "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" 3 ½ stars.