It's a warm welcome back to Middle-earth in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first film in director Peter Jackson's planned trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to The Lord of the Rings and the unexpected joy is how much we missed the place.
But settle in, folks. This is a story of epic proportions, and Jackson is going to take his time telling it.
In fact, it's a solid half-hour before the story proper Â as those who read the book remember it gets rolling. Jackson (co-writing with wife Fran Walsh, collaborator Phillipa Boyens and a new addition to the team, Guillermo Del Toro) starts with a framing story, as the elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) writes down the details for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, the hero of the "Rings" trilogy) that include a history lesson involving the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor.
The journey of the title finally gets under way when we meet the younger Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman, from the BBC's "The Office" and "Sherlock"). Bilbo is a contented Hobbit living his perfectly ordinary life in The Shire. Normal, that is, until a wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, returning to duty), tries to enlist him for an adventure. Hobbits don't have adventures, so Bilbo declines. Or tries to.
That night, Bilbo receives a visit from 13 dwarves, who have teamed with Gandalf on a quest to rescue the fabled Erebor from the evil dragon Smaug. They require a burglar, someone who doesn't smell like a dwarf, and Bilbo is their choice. Leading the band of dwarves is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), heir to the deposed dwarf king's throne.
When Bilbo asks if Gandalf can guarantee his return from the quest, the wizard replies, "No. And if you do, I cannot guarantee you will be the same."
Jackson & Co. expand on Tolkien's book, adding scenes and information alluded to in other of Tolkien's writings. This is how the elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the old wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) make brief appearances, with dire warnings of what's to come. But the addenda seldom feel padded; Jackson paces the story with sweeping battle sequences, including a double finale involving slobbering goblins and murderous orcs.
And, in the midst of the goblin battle, we get Bilbo's (though not the audience's) introduction to the shadow-dwelling little monster Gollum (performed again by Andy Serkis) whose prized possession, a certain ring he finds most "precioussss," has gone missing.
As he did in the Oscar-winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Jackson brings the details of Middle-earth to glorious life in every verdant landscape, shining sword, braided beard and scary creature. There's a more playful air this time, as the stakes of the good-vs.-evil battle of "The Lord of the Rings" are only dimly realized in this early chapter.
Making that world even more crystal clear is Jackson's technology-stretching decision to film at 48 frames per second double the usual rate. The 48-frame images are disconcertingly sharp, like going from a regular TV screen to a good-quality HD screen. But after about 10 minutes, a viewer will forget about the new technology and get swept up in the story.
(Two other observations about the 48-frame image. One is that it brings sufficient illumination to the 3-D effects, making the annoying glasses worth the trouble for a change. Second, the image clarity is unforgiving for set designers, and anyone else who employs the 48-frame technology had better be as persnickety about production design as Jackson's crew is.)
In a sea of good performances, one stands out. That's Armitage, who creates a dynamic and full-throated hero out of Thorin as the lead dwarf carries the weight of royal responsibility on his broad, armor-clad shoulders.
It's not entirely clear how Jackson will fill two more super-sized movies out of one book that clocks in at just about 300 pages. But "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" suggests that the next chapters will be exciting and epic.
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
Peter Jackson takes us back to Middle-earth in an exciting start to a trilogy based on the prequel to The Lord of the Rings.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 14.
Rating • PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.
Running time • 169 minutes.