WARNING: SPOILERS HEREIN!
Audiences could care less when it comes to what cranky critics have to say about tone, pacing and shooting at 48 frames per second, as "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" earned an estimated $84.8 million this weekend, setting a new record for best December opening.
It would appear all is well in Middle-earth (as much as it can be, anyway), at least for this first leg of the "Journey." And, truth be told, we don't see why the first installment in Peter Jackson's new trilogy won't continue to charge through the crowded holiday season as a box office champion due to positive word of mouth and hardcore Tolkien fans coming back for repeat viewings -- there is, after all, a lot to love in "The Hobbit," warts and all.
Yes, the high frame rate is bizarre. Like, really bizarre. It looks like a cross between live theatre (really, more than once I almost reached out to see if I could just touch Martin Freeman's face) and one of those simulation rides at amusement parks. There's so much detail in everything, down to the last leaf on the forest floor, to the point where you're not quite sure what in the hell you're supposed to be looking at half the time. It also makes for a way too over-lit film; there's a scene early on in Bag End where Gandalf asks for "More light" so he can show everyone the map and I wondered why he thought there wasn't enough light already.
It's like nothing you've seen before. It's hypnotic, disconcerting, fascinating and distracting, often all at once. If nothing else, it serves as quite the showcase for an interesting new filmmaking technology ... and, perhaps more notably, succeeds in setting "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" apart from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The HFR 3D, for better and worse, makes "The Hobbit" seem like a much "younger" and more playful tale than any of the LOTR chapters -- which, of course, it is. And ultimately, it turns the film into a curiosity piece -- for both the film's champions and its detractors.
And there's much to be curious about. "The Hobbit" is not "the new LOTR movie"; the movie is its own strange creature made by the Peter Jackson of "King Kong" rather than the Peter Jackson of "The Lord of the Rings." Jackson is more the bombastic showman of "Kong"here, subjecting his characters to a seemingly never-ending series of often too-long crisis situations, a succession of "mini-episodes" in the place of one true multi-layered narrative. However, these episodes, like those in "Kong," often have a thrilling, go-for-broke, WTF element to them -- particularly the sequence where, for no apparent reason, a bunch of mountains come to life and start beating the crap out of each other.
Whether you "like" the film or not, Jackson deserves credit for bringing a new kind of energy to Middle-earth. Rather surprisingly, he never indulges his bad LOTR habit of turning every single character moment into a big emotional crescendo; in fact, "An Unexpected Journey" is rather short on emotional resonance, so the moments that actually bring a lump to your throat (Gandalf's explanation to Galadriel as to why he chose Bilbo for the quest; Bilbo deciding not to kill the saga's Shakespearean fool, Gollum) feel all the more powerful.
As such, Jackson has re-introduced us to a world that feels both familiar and brand-new. Even if you left "An Unexpected Journey" feeling disappointed, you probably can't help but wonder where it's headed. It feels like perhaps Jackson himself talking through Bilbo as our hero utters the last line of the film: "I believe the worst is behind us." It's funny because those who have read the book know the greatest challenges are yet to come. Perhaps the director telling us that the rough road of traversing this brave new Middle-earth is over -- now that we're somewhat familiar with its distinct look, tone and style, the next two "Hobbit" movies are going to be nothing but the soaring epic we've been hoping for since the project was announced.
Jackson sets a sinister stage for the next installment, ending "An Unexpected Journey" with a close-up of the open eye of the mighty Smaug, waking from his slumber as an innocent little thrush knocks a snail shell against the outside walls of Erebor. Unfortunately, dear Bilbo, the worst is yet to come, as we're going to see this dragon in all his destructive power in the next chapter, the darkly titled "The Desolation of Smaug." Really, Smaug is the character everyone wants to see in the second installment, and Jackson did a brilliant job in teasing him just enough in "Journey" -- a wing there, a foot there, and only ever for a few frames at a time. The fact that the dragon is being played by geek cult hero Benedict Cumberbatch (who also briefly cameos in "An Unexpected Journey" as the Necromancer) makes his upcoming revelation all the more enticing.
However, we've got a long "Journey" ahead of us before we can return to Middle-earth, as "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" doesn't open until December 13, 2013. Sigh ... it feels like December 2001 all over again, when we had to come to terms with the fact that we had to wait an entire year for "The Two Towers."
See the trailer for 'The Hobbit':