Dwarves, orcs and wizards abound in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," and we'll get to them in a moment. But now, a word about frame rates.
"The Hobbit," Peter Jackson's first of three prequels to his "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is also the first major movie to be shot and projected at 48 frames per second, rather than the usual 24. It's a much-publicized technological advancement but an aesthetic step backward. The high frame rate, or HFR, version of "The Hobbit" has such crystalline, videolike clarity that it reduces everything and everybody to mere props and actors. Swords lack heft, the castles look like dioramas, and light never looks natural, even when it is. The result is a movie about magic that somehow has none.
All this changes at plain old 24 frames per second. (That's how most viewers will see it, since only about 450 North American theaters are showing the HFR version.) Suddenly, Jackson's familiar world looks inviting again, and the actors seem to truly live in it. This "Hobbit" is a fantasy-film cornucopia, with mythical creatures and grand battles woven into an old-fashioned adventure-narrative -- exactly what Jackson does best.
"The Hobbit" is more charming and less serious than the "Lord" films; aside from some gore, it's almost suitable for Tolkien's original demographic, children. That's largely due to an endearing Martin Freeman as homebound hobbit Bilbo Baggins ("No adventures here, thank you!"), who nevertheless joins a band of dwarves seeking to vanquish the dragon Smaug. Freeman is wonderful as a sheltered creature who literally looks up to the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, warm and twinkly as ever) while trying to prove himself to the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, looking short but regal).
"The Hobbit" sometimes gets silly (the wizard Radagast, played by Sylvester McCoy, recalls Samantha's dotty aunt in "Bewitched"), but Jackson often blends comedy with action or horror to good effect.
The finest example is Bilbo's meeting with the nasty Gollum (Andy Serkis, vividly reprising his most famous motion-capture role). They verbally fox-trot like Abbott and Costello, but Gollum bristles with the menace and psychosis of a modern-day serial killer.
"The Hobbit" ends not with a climax or a cliffhanger but more of scene-setter for the next film, which some might find frustrating.
But that's exactly what Jackson wants: the grand feel of an unfolding epic. "The Hobbit" is an impressive first chapter.
BOTTOM LINE Jackson's fans will enjoy this fantasy spectacle, but the HFR version is unspectacular. The magic is in the standard format.