1. It's always important to remember that the first film of any trilogy—particularly one that has to not only introduce a bunch of new characters but take time to remind us of all the people/dwarves/elves/wizards we'd forgotten in the nine years since we last saw them—is always going to be the slowest, most laborious to sit through. Even the first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, takes forever to get out of the damned shire; by the end of that film's first hour, you're desperate to see a troll, an orc, something, anything. So the fact that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is so, so slow—the fact that it spends 15 minutes stretching out a scene that could easily be wrapped up in one line of dialogue—should be expected, and maybe even forgiven. After all, it's tough to argue that Peter Jackson didn't ultimately pay everything off the last time. But then again: I'm not writing about a whole trilogy yet. I'm writing about just one film, and whether or not you should spend $10 or so to see it. So I must be honest and say that while I'm intrigued by the possibilities of this series ... long swaths of this thing are a freaking chore to sit through.
2. The plot of An Unexpected Journey is so spare and easy that I wonder if I can essentially summarize nearly three hours of running time in one sentence. Lemme try. Sixty years before the LOTR films, a young Bilbo Baggins is drafted by Wizard Gandalf to help a group of nomadic dwarves recapture their home from a dragon. Hey, that was pretty good, especially considering the movie never actually makes it to the dragon. (If I'd dropped the dependent clause establishing the timeframe, I could have gotten that done in about 20 words.) Along the way they run into some orcs—a shit-ton of orcs, now that you mention it—a couple of trolls and some other characters from the last film, most of whom I didn't remember, other than Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Billy Crystal and his blasted precious. It's about three hours of that.
3. I counted four battle scenes, maybe five if you include a pre-credits flashback sequence. These are shot with Jackson's usually busy-bodyness—he has a way of filling the frame with tons of different little fights without making it look hyperactive the way George Lucas does—but without the grand, almost lunatic intensity of some of the best sequences in LOTR. (There's a 20-minute stretch at the end of Return of the King that's so over-the-top batshit that it feels plucked from a madman's most vivid fever dream.) Much of it feels oddly rote, even. The film's big, bravura finale is impressive in a technical sense, but it also isn't much more than "dwarves running and swinging axes." It's a lot of noise and a lot of movement, but it doesn't do more than run in place. Much of the film has that same treadmill vibe. An hour in, we're still in the shire. Nobody cares about the shire. Move it along, would you?
4. One of the more discussed aspects of An Unexpected Journey is Jackson's decision to shoot the film at 48 frames per second (rather than the usual) 24. The idea is that it makes the image clearer and therefore makes the experience more immersive, and the sped-up frame rate certainly does do that. Unfortunately, the image is so "real"—you feel like you're right there with Bilbo and the gang—that all it ends up doing, paradoxically, is emphasize what's artificial. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote that, "HD has the unfortunate effect of turning every film into what appears to be a documentary about a film set, not just warts-and-all but carefully supplying extra warts where a wart has no right to be," and he's exactly right: Who in the world wants to see a Middle-earth that's "realistic"? The frame rate is impressive (and I'm sure my hesitance to embrace will read Luddite in 10 years), but by attempting to bring the audience closer to the experience, it instead keeps it at a pronounced distance. The experience made me want to see how something really real—a skyscraper, say, or a sporting event—would look at 48 fps. It didn't make me want to see any more orcs that way.
5. There's still plenty to like in An Unexpected Journey, particularly Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo; he's befuddled and nervous, but he has more backbone than Elijah Wood ever did. (I believe him with a sword in a way I never did Frodo.) And even if I was more confused than anything else by all the jargon—"let us charge the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields!"—the first three films generated enough good will that it's an undeniable pleasure to see the old gang again. But those films felt invigorated by a director living out his dream project, driven to do the movie right by Tolkien. Here, so far, it sorta feels like Peter Jackson is just killing time. There are worse ways to kill time, sure; it's just that there is, alas, so much time to kill.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.