A much simpler story -- that is being broken into three films -- Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman) "unexpected journey" to help the dwarves of Middle-earth recapture their Lonely Mountain homeland (and the treasure stored within it) is an overall easier, less gruesome tale than "LOTR." But because Jackson has stretched the one book across three separate releases, he's had to add sequences from other Tolkien stories, and the result is a long fantasy adventure that, while grand in scope, isn't as spectacular in execution as the previous films.
Regardless of the length, Bilbo, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Gollum (Andy Serkis), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and 13 dwarves (including the excellent Richard Armitage as their leader, Thorin Oakenshield) make this a must-see for families with mature enough kids to handle the villains and the runtime.
Here are five issues to consider before introducing your kids to Middle-earth (ideally for kids 10 & up).
1. Dragon Smash: In the prologue to the story (which takes place approximately 150 years before the events of "The Hobbit"), the gold-rich dwarves of Erebor end up facing the unexpected and unrelenting terror of a dragon attack. The dragon, named Smaug, is greedy for the Longbeard dwarves' stores of gold, and he'll do anything to capture the treasure, including torch all the dwarves in his way and destroy their home in the Lonely Mountain. Thus begins a body count so high, it's tough to keep track.
2. Ugly Creatures: Speaking of body counts, the main antagonist of this first "Hobbit" installment isn't Smaug, who is presumed dead, but Azog, the giant, one-armed Orc leader who killed the dwarf king Thror. There's also the killer dragon in the prologue, the Jabba the Hut-like goblin and his bloodthirsty minions that pursue Gandalf and the dwarves, and the humorous, man-eating trolls that attempt to skewer Bilbo's friends for a leisurely bite. And that's just a fraction of the scary beings in Middle-earth.
3. Attention Span: Have you ever sat next to a fidgeting child while you're trying to concentrate for three hours? I'm talking about an 8-9-10-year-old who has the attention span of a toddler. It's not a pleasant experience, so be mindful about whether your kid is mature enough to sit still and focus on a 169-minute film, even if it is a fantasy adventure. If adults at my screening (full disclosure, yours truly included) snuck a peek or two at their watches, imagine what some fourth or fifth grader will be like during the less exciting sequences.
4. Meaning of Bravery: On the plus side, there's a worthwhile moral to Tolkien's tale. Like in "The Lord of the Rings," the overarching lesson in "The Hobbit" is that even the smallest being can have the greatest impact. Bilbo is unsure of his ability to rise to the occasion, but Gandalf never doubts him and reminds him that it's not taking a life that takes courage, but sparing and saving one. By the end of this installment, Bilbo is able to summon the courage to outsmart the trolls, outmaneuver the ring-obsessed Gollum, and even act the David to an Orc thug's Goliath.
5. Read It Then See It: Perhaps the very best gauge for whether your offspring is ready to see "The Hobbit" is whether they've read the book already. If they haven't, now's your chance. The Jackson and Tolkien fans will be out in droves on opening night, so the movie will definitely be in theaters at least six weeks, if not longer. If you want to see it but aren't in a rush, take the opportunity to read it again with your kid and get the full page-to-screen experience. There's even a special 75h anniversary edition.