The early knocks against "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" are only knocks if you're not really interested in seeing "The Hobbit." It's too long? True, 170 minutes is enough time to begin worrying about bed sores. But if you enjoy watching "The Hobbit," which you almost certainly will, then that's just more to love. Its 48 frames per second is too clear, too clinical? That falls shy of true hardship in a film this meticulous. The score sounds too much like the "Lord of the Rings" score? We really are picking nits now.
It's as if we're supposed to hold Peter Jackson's preposterous ambition for this project against him, even after 2003's "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" won 11 Oscars and is now ranked by IMDB.com users as one of the top 10 movies ever. Even if he won't duplicate that feat with "The Hobbit," he's going to go down trying — just check out that subtitle. It might well have been "An Unexpected Trilogy," for Jackson is bent on rendering J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal 1937 fantasy novel "The Hobbit" (310 pages) into three feature-length movies, the same number Jackson made for Tolkien's three "Lord of the Rings" volumes (1,571 pages).
Necessarily, this is a slower movie than the "LOTR" trio. But here's what you get in exchange for your patience: easier character introductions and scenes that get to breathe, all with just as much adventure-story action. Tolkien's novels have enjoyed terrific longevity not only because they feed (and in fact create) fantasy nerds; they're also wonderful travelogues, discursive and embroidered with the kind of asides that pepper real journeys. In this, "The Hobbit" is its own best case for not cramming every last moment with axe fights and near-escapes, though of course those are also abundant.
After the events of "Lord of the Rings," we find Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, sitting to pen a memoir for his nephew, Elijah Wood's Frodo. We're transported to Bag End pre-"LOTR," when a young Bilbo (Martin Freeman, of the BBC version of "The Office") receives a visit from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, back in the Oscar-nominated role) and soon finds his home overrun by a dozen boisterous dwarves. They are staging a quest to retake their one-time mountain stronghold from Smaug, a dragon that in a long-ago fit of gold-lust overran the entire dwarf kingdom, scattering its inhabitants. The heir to the dwarf throne is Thorin (a sullen Richard Armitage), bent on avenging his fallen grandfather and father, but holding a grudge against elves that falls somewhere shy of helpful.
Gandalf has convinced the dwarf troupe they need a hobbit — this hobbit, in fact — to join their ranks and serve as a "burglar," for some highly dangerous but unspecified heist within the dragon-keep. Bilbo dithers, then relents to joining, yet some time must pass, and adventures befall them, before his new dwarf cohort sees him as anything more than a ninny.
If we may level a serious charge against "The Hobbit," it's that the action and dialogue swerve every so often into the cartoonish. For as much makeup and false noses dot this film, Jackson's also running his protagonists through elaborate settings that are often no less digital than your average Xbox game. Through it all, Bilbo and Gandalf and the dwarves tend to emerge as unscathed as Looney Tunes through some thoroughly implausible scenarios. For all its intensity, the action remains ultimately benign and the risk token.
But it also contains no small degree of fun. Jackson gives the middlebrow world of Middle-earth every chance to succeed and grants Tolkien's vision the room it needs to thrive. Bilbo's riddling encounter with the ring-mad Gollum (Andy Serkis again, swathed in pixels) stands out as a scene that cranks up a high degree of tension without feeling rushed. Even if we did expect this journey, we can be surprised, pleasantly, by its pace.