Dec. 19 2012 12:00 AM

When Peter Jackson wrapped up his ambitious “Lord of the Rings” saga in 2003 with the triumphant “The Return of the King,” it was assumed that was the end of Middle-earth as we knew it — and that was fine. Now, however, after a decade of production woes, Jackson is once again whisking us away for a series of halfling-centric magical adventures with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” part one of a new planned trilogy. And although it sometimes feel a bit bloated, it’s still a thrill being back in the beloved, familiar world that looks an awful lot like New Zealand. 

Jackson, of course, didn’t invent Middle-earth (that would be J.R.R. Tolkien) but he certainly is responsible for making it a living, breathing place. When it was announced that he would split Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” the prequel to the richer, darker “Lord of the Rings” tomes, into three movies, many were left wondering how there could possibly be enough material to span nine hours of filmmaking. With the arrival of “Unexpected Journey,” we finally have our answer: through flashbacks, musical numbers and gratuitous chase scenes.

Not that anyone will accuse the film of  having a lack of scope. In “Unexpected Journey,” you’ve got an epic quest — on foot, no less — across a treacherous but scenic landscape filled with mountain-sized rock monsters, gold-hording dragons and nasty orcs racing around on wolf-creatures. And although the eye candy comes with a simple plot, it’s more than enough to keep the audience engaged. 

The story follows the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (played by the disarmingly impish Martin Freeman), uncle of the “Rings” central character, Frodo. Baggins, a once-adventurous soul who has grown fussy in his middle age, is wooed from his home in the utopian Shire by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to assist on a dangerous mission: help a dozen dwarves reclaim their kingdom from Smaug, a fire-breathing dragon. That’s pretty much it, and without a lot of stuff to do, the audience is allowed to revel in this alternate universe, sit back and enjoy themselves. 

However, the film’s slower pacing allows some of the less polished aspects to stand farther out. Most confusing is the wildly uneven looks of the dwarves. When you’re dealing with fantasy races, a lot of what aids in the suspension of disbelief and in telling who’s who (and what’s what) are physical differentiations — hobbits have pointy ears and big hairy feet, goblins have scrotums for chins, etc. In the case of the 12 dwarves, if they hadn’t been introduced as such, it would be easy to mistake them for different Middle-earth races entirely. It’s more than a ragtag group — it’s a medley of make-up styles. Dean O’Gorman (“Fili”), for example, is saddled with a bulbous false nose and silly blond braids, but his brother Kili, played by Aidan Turner, is a prosthetics-free smoldering hunk who looks like a regular human. (You can practically hear someone in the production team screaming, “Don’t cover his face — he’s too handsome!”) Is the tween female demographic that vital that they couldn’t risk covering Turner’s handsome mug? Answer, sadly: most likely. 

What Jackson lacks in plot, however, he more than makes up for with spectacle. He shot “The Hobbit” in the hyper-realistic  — and, according to many reports, unsettlingly distracting — format of 48 frames per second, which is double that of traditional movies. (The format is unavailable in Lansing; Ypsilanti has the closest showing.) 

He also shot it in 3D, lending a surprising amount of intimacy to the action. This effect is particularly effective in several key scenes. The slow-motion battle of the stone giants, who morph from the side of the mountain to hurl city-sized boulders at each other in the middle of a lightning storm, is one of the year’s most eye-popping action pieces. Likewise, the chase scene with the orcs-on-wargs hunting down the wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) on his rabbit sleigh is a pusle-pounding pursuit. But the third dimension’s best use in “The Hobbit” is the riddle battle between Bilbo and Gollum (motion-captured by Most Valuable Returning Player, Andy Serkis). You get a real sense of claustrophobic mortal peril as Gollum’s inhuman movements over, under and around the rocks make you feel like you’re trapped, back against a cave wall, mind racing to keep from being eaten alive.  

It’s good to know some things never change.