It's the prequel to one trilogy and the start of another, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey can feel like damn near that many movies all by itself. You're watching an adaptation of a book by J.R.R. Tolkien, which includes tons of extra material Tolkien wrote but published elsewhere, which is also a prequel to the massively successful Lord of the Rings series, and which ultimately has to be a good movie on its own terms. The conflicting buzz on all these factors can be as disorienting as leaving your 3D glasses on after you exit the theater.
Sort it all out before you hit the theater with this quick and dirty guide to what to watch out for, from the controversial filming technique to the return of Gollum and Gandalf and Galadriel – 13 items in all, one for each dwarf involved in the quest to reclaim their homeland from a deadly dragon. Did director Peter Jackson succeed in his quest? Answer that riddle starting here.
1. Think of The Hobbit as The Lord of the Rings Season Two
From the very first frames, all 48 of them per second, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is designed to look and sound and feel like you're picking up where The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King left off nine years ago. If you're a Rings junkie, that sense of re-entering a world you love is as pleasurable a sensation as smoking the Shire's finest pipeweed. It's also a familiar sensation: it's what you feel when you're watching the season premiere of your favorite prestige cable drama, nine-plus months after the last season finale. That's why complaints about the films' length and one-per-year serialization are so misguided: Each of the Jackson-Tolkien trilogies will run about as long as any given season of The Sopranos, and a decade-plus of TV drama's New Golden Age has primed our attention spans and viewing patterns accordingly.
2. This prequel doesn't look like those prequels
You know how the smooth, shiny Star Wars prequels looked so little like the weatherbeaten world of the original trilogy that Lucas had to go back in to Luke S.'s adventures and add little flying robots and whatnot just to remind you they took place in the same universe? Not a problem here. It's obvious that the technology Jackson used to make his two Tolkien trilogies – technology he and his team largely pioneered – has greatly improved over the past decade. But everything he's using that technology to depict looks the same as it ever was. It's sharper, there's more of it, but the dwarves and elves and hobbits and orcs and castles and ruins and mountains all feel the same as they did a decade ago. If you were expecting the comparison to make this movie look too slick or the original trilogy too outdated, relax.
3. The 48fps makes it look like a video game cut scene sometimes – but so what?
Director Peter Jackson infamously insisted on digitally shooting The Hobbit with double the number of "film" frames per second of standard cinema, in hopes that the increased clarity would enhance viewers' experience of the effects, details and 3D. It worked: the level of individually discernible detail visible onscreen at any given moment is absolutely staggering to behold. There's one clash between opposing armies of Dwarves and Orcs in particular where you can clearly make out each individual one-on-one fight, and the effect is jaw-dropping. The price you pay, particularly in shots where the characters or the camera move rapidly, is a weird crystal clarity that feels like you're watching a scene from The Hobbit: The Video Game. But this is 2012, and we've all played plenty of video games, you know? It's not the death of cinema's storytelling aesthetic – it's just a different aesthetic, one an increasing number of us have lived in since we were kids. Non-purists should be fine with it if it means a clearer look at Middle-earth.
4. The Hobbit was a children's book, and it shows sometimes – but so what?
I'm not even talking about the juvenile bathroom humor and nut shots with which Jackson and company pepper the movie – that was very much not the style of the good Professor Tolkien. But even though it was based on the imaginary mythology he concocted in the trenches of World War I and later developed into The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. wrote The Hobbit as a bedtime story for his kids. It's got a fairy-tale sense of illogical whimsy – talking trolls named Bert, multiple dwarf singalongs, a pivotal scene based on a game of riddles, a tendency just to throw new creatures and characters at you and expect you to roll with it – that the movie partially preserves. If you're a FANTASY IS SERIOUS BUSINESS person who thinks Man of Steel looks good because it looks dark, maaaaan, you may have a problem. But wrestling blockbuster-fantasy away from realism and back into magic is a worthy cause. And if some of the humor falls flat for you, chill out – we're still worlds away from Jar-Jar territory.
5. After a while, you forget the 3D is even there – which means you can skip it if you want
Like James Cameron in Avatar, Peter Jackson uses 3D mainly to establish a sense of depth to his images. Depending on the POV of any given shot, mountains are really freaking mountainous, caverns are really freaking cavernous, armies really look like armies and so forth. A few gimmicky shots involving arrows and butterflies aside, what this means is that you quickly forget that what you're seeing is 3D at all. By the end of the film I was almost convinced they'd stopped using it. It's a tool, not a special effect, so while it's worth seeing the movie with that tool in play, you won't actually be missing anything if you don't.
6. Gandalf = Frodo / Bilbo = the other, funny hobbits
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo was the dreamy-eyed coming-of-age hero and his friends Sam, Merry and Pippin were the comic relief. In The Hobbit, the hero is the comic relief. Until the final reel, Bilbo's storyline is almost all classic fish-out-of-water stuff, which is why a comedy guy like Martin Freeman got the part. The result is that Gandalf takes on a lot of the dramatic weight, with Ian McKellen playing him less as a sage badass and more as an aging gunslinger who's afraid he may lose his touch when it matters the most. It's a very different dynamic than the original trilogy, and it takes at least as much getting used to as the 48fps.
7. You'll remember about 2/3 of the dwarves, and batting .666 ain't bad
So yeah, lotta dwarves in this one. Dwalin's the first one to show up, and he looks like a biker. Balin's the old wise one. Ori's the young dumb one. Bombur's the fat one. Fili's the hot one. Kili's the hot one's brother. Bofur has a lumberjack hat and sounds like Craig Ferguson. Thorin's the leader and sounds like Sean Bean. That's eight out of 13 dwarves you'll probably be able to remember without trying, a major achievement for the film given how little Tolkien differentiated the bulk of them. All great action ensembles, from The Magnificent Seven to Aliens, are forced by the amount of screentime available to make each member of the team pop with a few brief, broad strokes: an odd accent, a striking wardrobe choice, a memorable personality, a cool weapon. Jackson took a huge, fan-alienating risk by making the dwarves such a motley crew, but it was worth it.
8. The creatures are incredible
True, most of the basic design work for the various things that try to eat our heroes was done a decade ago, when the look of the orcs and trolls and wargs and what-have-you were settled upon for LotR. But using that as a base, the team at Jackson's Weta Workshop came up with some truly inventive and weird new beasts: massive stone giants like something out of Shadow of the Colossus, a goblin king who looks like a popped zit, a seethingly malevolent and 'roided-out pale orc called Azog the Defiler. There's even a tiny goblin who rides around in a basket delivering messages. If you fondly remember the fanciful arch-fantasy films of the Eighties – Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, Willow, even Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi – you'll dig the hell out of these creeps.
9. So are the battles
Seriously, holy shit. This is where the combination of 48fps and 3D, plus Jackson's traditional obsessive attention to detail, really pays off. There's a shot in a flashback to the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, as the two armies clash, where you can pretty much make out every single one-on-one fight simultaneously. It's an immersive, chaotic, you-are-there sensation – and it makes you wonder what a true war movie would do with this technology, and whether you could handle whatever they came up with.
10. Gollum is better than ever
Hate to repeat myself, but seriously, holy shit. Some 10 years after his introduction Gollum already remained the most convincing fully CGI character ever, by a substantial margin, but in this movie he reaches a whole new level of verisimilitude. His riddle-game confrontation with a lost and frightened Bilbo – if Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of his subterranean lair; if Bilbo loses, Gollum will eat him – is in many ways the film's centerpiece, and it's full of lingering close-ups on Gollum's face as he mugs and grimaces and smiles and concentrates that are so convincing it's like the movie's just showing off. Please, please invent a new Oscar category for actor Andy Serkis and the team that transforms him into this tortured soul.
11. The stuff that wasn't in the book really feels that way
To flesh the relatively short'n'sweet Hobbit into a full-blown epic trilogy, Jackson included a ton of material that wasn't in the original novel: backstory about the dwarves and their exile from their dragon-conquered mountain kingdom, the offscreen adventures of Gandalf and other characters that were going on at the same time as Bilbo and the Dwarves' quest, stuff Jackson and his co-writers made up entirely. The result isn't exactly seamless. Taken individually, it's all perfectly entertaining, but the middle section of the film in particular feels really episodic, with random orc attacks and chase scenes and visits from Gandalf's hippie/hermit fellow wizard Radagast giving it an awkward rhythm.
12. All hail Queen Cate
All of the actors who reprise their roles from the first trilogy – even Flight of the Conchords dreamboat Bret McKenzie, whose non-speaking background role as an Elf in Fellowship made him fangirl-famous long before he became part of New Zealand's fourth-most-popular folk duo – get a big audience pop the first time they show up onscreen. But only Cate Blanchett, returning as the Elf queen Galadriel, elicited audible gasps. A stunning and otherwordly presence who moves as if she's being shot at her very own frame rate of infinity, she commands the screen like no one else in the movie. A good thing, too, considering she's the only woman with a speaking part.
13. The true enemies have yet to show their faces
Literally. Smaug, the unstoppable dragon that Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves are on a mission to murk, is glimpsed only in bits and pieces – a roar of flame, a slithering tail, a radiant eye. And the Necromancer, a mysterious sorcerer preoccupying Gandalf, Galadriel and the other high-and-mighty even as the Dwarves pursue their quest, shows up only as a shadow. There's a thin line between building anticipation for the next installment and just stalling, and the final scene will no doubt elicit cries of "That's it?!" same as the first time around 11 years ago. Look at it this way, though: You've now got two more years to gird your loins for the eventual day-long six-film marathon.