Welcome back, Middle-earthers. Nearly a decade after launching his Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson returns with another set of three films, this time adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved book, The Hobbit. The first part, An Unexpected Journey, is a well-made spectacle that makes up for overall lacking story and character development with one incredible action scene after the next. The Hobbit is much lighter material than The Lord of the Rings, and Jackson and company benefit from not taking the proceedings too seriously.
The story really couldn’t be simpler. As the film opens, the Dwarf Kingdom of Eramore is attacked and seized by Smaug, an evil dragon. Determined to take it back, the Dwarves and the wizard, Gandalf (McKellan), summon the help of Bilbo Baggins (Freeman), a Hobbit that they hope to use as a “burglar.” On their quest to Eramore, the clan battles Trolls, Goblins, Orcs, and other undesirables. That powerful gold ring even comes into play as Bilbo has his first encounter with Gollum on the way to Lonely Mountain.
After a sluggish opening half-hour, An Unexpected Journey really settles into a groove, alternating between battles and developments among the Dwarves. This formula risks growing old quickly, but the film’s technical achievements keep things fresh and consistently enthralling. The worlds are truly amazing, with a climactic battle in the dirges of Middle-earth that is as marvelous as anything Jackson has helmed. The various creatures the clan confronts are true originals and seamlessly integrated. The central encounter, between Bilbo and Gollum, is fantastic and a reminder that Jackson the storyteller is equal to that of Jackson the tech-head. The cast is uniformly outstanding, with Martin Freeman pitch-perfect as the kind and risk-averse Bilbo. Meanwhile, Ian McKellan steals the show as Gandalf with an energetic performance that solidifies his character as pretty much the coolest old man in the movies. The movie’s only hiccups come in narrative form, as we barely get to know the Dwarves before the adventure begins and it never feels like a whole lot is at stake from a mortality perspective. We’ll see what happens in next two entries. Feeling a bit padded and stretched, the film sets up part two, The Desolation of Smaug, perfectly and leaves us wanting to see it, well, now.
Note: I can’t stress enough how underwhelming the 3D presentation of An Expected Journey is. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt with an effects master like Jackson in charge, but it serves no useful purpose. It dims and otherwise beautiful color palette and only contains a few gimmicky particle effects. Proceed with caution.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 169 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
Theatrical Release: December 14, 2012
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro. Based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish