Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Fantasy fans hungry for a second breakfast of Tolkien-fueled fare can get their fill with this visually sumptuous feast. Director Peter Jackson (the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) rekindles his Middle Earth magic in adapting the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal novel "The Hobbit" for the big screen. Two other "Hobbit" films will follow in 2013 and 2014.
Those fond of the award-winning "Lord of the Rings" pictures will feel a sense of deja vu in watching "An Unexpected Journey," as cinematography, costuming, score and set design are all virtually identical, not to mention several cast members. And while "Journey" gets off to a ploddingly slow start (as some journeys are wont to do), the colorful characters, action sequences and unparalleled visual effects quickly help pick up the pace.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, expertly cast) is a peaceful hobbit perfectly content in the quiet calm of the Shire, thank you very much. That all changes when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, reprising his "Rings" role) arrives at Bilbo's abode with 13 dwarves in tow. Gandalf and the dwarves, led by the brave and stubborn Thorin Oakenshield, are planning a trek to the Lonely Mountain to retake their kingdom of Erebor from a vicious dragon named Smaug. Bilbo reluctantly agrees to tag along as the group's "burglar," and soon the crew is on the road to Erebor.
The quest proves a dangerous one as Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves run across three hungry trolls, a horde of nasty goblins and their obese leader, and other obstacles. Bilbo also meets the gangly creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finds the One Ring, a powerful treasure that plays an integral role in the "Lord of the Rings" films.
There is a paint-by-numbers feel to "Journey," since the groundwork was already well laid with "Lord of the Rings." Some scenes -- such as a flashback battle scene involving Thorin and the dwarves -- are incredibly similar to moments in "Rings." The dwarves are a treat, though, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage, taking the hunky-leader baton from Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn), elder Balin (Ken Stott) and tattooed warrior Dwalin (Graham McTavish). And "Journey" introduces a host of interesting new characters, such as Gandalf's fellow wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy).
Freeman makes a wonderful Bilbo, striking a perfect balance between humor and heart, and McKellen serves up another terrific performance. Jackson shot "The Hobbit" in 3D at 48 frames per second (24 is standard), which takes some getting used to. The quickened frame rate leads to a vibrant, cleaner viewing and more realistic effects, but prosthetics and makeup are also easier to spot.
Some have wondered if three films (at nearly three hours each) are really necessary in adapting one 300-page novel. A fair question. And the easy answer is no. But for those who relish the fantasy genre -- and Tolkien's works specifically -- three movies might not be enough.
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. 2 hours, 49 minutes.
- Tyler Hanley