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Three-hour opener to Hobbit trilogy

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There's a sneeze in the first hour of The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey that has no plot ramifications. No one on screen responds to it. It's essentially meaningless. But director Peter Jackson keeps the camera where it is, lingering for a few humorous beats, for no reason I can discern, and it's the best thing in the movie. He makes a quiet, personal decision to keep the camera there. It's got personality.

The rest of the movie, not so much. The first of three films covering J.R.R. Tolkien's prelude to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it covers the beginning of Bilbo Baggins' journey with a bunch of dwarves and a wizard to go slay a dragon. Despite billing itself as an unexpected journey, this is pretty much what we expect. It's a big epic with lots of battles and even more sweeping shots of pristine landscape. The score is caught in a permanent, exhausting swell, and good guys look off into the distance while the wind blows their hair. There are lots of woodwinds. No one uses contractions.

But about that pristine landscape. Actually, about that pristine everything. This is the first movie shot and screened in 48 frames per second, a frame rate twice as high as what we're used to seeing. In interviews, Jackson claims that this is realistic, and there's some online chatter about whether 48 fps makes things look too real. I'm not so sure. This technique certainly make things very sharp, focused and bright. But such precision doesn't approximate what looking at your environment is really like.

Part of the appeal of this world could be its foggy, tweedy, tattered feel, but Jackson's not interested in that. Almost everything looks so clean and neat—even Bilbo's vest is shiny. The sky in his hometown is so bright it looks like the sky in a My Little Pony cartoon.

The characters are no more carefully drawn than the environment. Martin Freeman (the British The Office) plays Bilbo as a finicky straight man, defined only in contrast to the gang of kooks that surround him, a cast that Jackson doesn't guide out of childish caricature. They're always uniformly caught in one emotion at a time—usually confusion (lots of hairy, furrowed brows), occasionally delight. They are one organism spread over a gaggle of small bodies.

This absence of individuality, this feeling of mass, exacerbates the feeling of perpetual assault that The Hobbit commits against its audience. The movie is told with an omniscient viewpoint that won't stop moving around. It just feels too big. We not only get extensive establishing shots, we get de-establishing shots, looking back at the field that was just crossed or the battleground that was just trashed. We're never more than a few minutes away from a battle, and there's no rhythm to settle into.

It will take longer to watch the three Hobbit movies than it would to read the book. (As a fellow viewer pointed out, a similar page-to-minute ratio would make the Rings trilogy 34 hours long.) Maybe with all that screen time, Jackson will mix it up a little in the next movies. In addition to fascinating sneezes, there could be captivating coughs or intriguing hiccups. Perhaps a long take of someone scratching his ear. That stuff's good at any number of frames per second.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Shire and shite."

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