'Hobbit' brings entertainment with new-age film techniques

Courtesy PhotoThe precious: Martin Freeman stars as the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s fantasy adventure “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

More than a decade ago, Peter Jackson turned J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” into a filmed trilogy running slightly more than nine hours, and then nearly 12 hours in extended editions on home video.

It made sense, considering the literary epic spanned 1,200 pages. But when Jackson announced he was going to make the 320-page prequel “The Hobbit” into a nine-hour trilogy as well, it began to sound less like storytelling and more like marketing.

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In addition to featuring obligatory 3-D, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is the first film ever to be shot at 48 frames per second, instead of the traditional 24 frames used since the days of silent cinema.

It looks a little too real, like a high-tech version of VHS videotape footage.

It doesn’t look like film, and it doesn’t feel like fantasy. Movements are awkward, and lines around visual effects sometimes stand out. Viewers could get used to it, but hopefully won’t have to. (The movie is also being  shown in a 24-frame version.)

Happily, despite all the technical details, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is exciting, tantalizing and satisfying.

It begins as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) recruits the fastidious homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) for a journey, with the goal to eventually to slay the dragon Smaug. They are accompanied by a band of dwarves, who, before departing, stage an impromptu feast and eat Bilbo out of house and home.

This first movie includes Bilbo’s encounter with the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), and shows how he obtains the ring that ends up causing so much trouble.

Other familiar faces from “The Lord of the Rings” turn up in small roles: Frodo (Elijah Wood) in a prologue, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) at Rivendell, and even Saruman (Christopher Lee).

Nicely, Jackson’s filmmaking chops are vastly improved from “The Fellowship of the Ring” 11 years ago. His action is smoother, the suspense sharper, and the storytelling brisker.

Freeman brings welcome notes of humor, and dwarves in secondary roles slowly reveal tiny moments of personality as they differentiate themselves from the crowd.

Very few of the 169 minutes are filler or fat. Though it may smack of salesmanship going in, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” delivers the real thing. The adventure has now begun.

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