- Rated PG-13
All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
fter years stuck in development hell due to the MGM bankruptcy crisis, the most anticipated prequel to come out of Hollywood since “The Phantom Menace” has finally arrived in theaters, although not exactly in the manner that most people were expecting. For starters, Peter Jackson has returned to the director’s chair after Guillermo del Toro cut his losses to work on other projects (and really, it’s for the better), while two movies have become three after the decision was made to turn “The Hobbit” into its own trilogy. Though it’s a move that reeks of the kind of studio greed you’d think Jackson would be above, the first installment (subtitled “An Unexpected Journey”) is still a delightfully fun trip back to Middle-earth, even if it fails to justify its overstuffed 160 minute runtime.
Set 60 years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings,” the film follows hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he embarks on his very first adventure – the one that he’s seen documenting for nephew Frodo later in his life. Chosen by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to join a party of 13 dwarves, led by brave warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on a quest to reclaim their home of Erebor after it was destroyed by the dragon Smaug, Bilbo is reluctant at first, but eventually agrees to serve as the group’s “burglar.” Danger is practically guaranteed, and along the way, the company crosses paths with a trio of hungry trolls, stone giants and a small army of orcs hell-bent on stopping the dwarves.
There’s not much story to summarize since “An Unexpected Journey” only covers about a third of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t action-packed, because in keeping with the book, there’s essentially a major set piece every chapter. Peter Jackson and Co. have also expanded upon a lot of the material in “The Hobbit,” as well as the appendixes found at the end of “The Lord of the Rings,” and though they’ve changed a few things in order to make the story flow better, it’s nothing that will make fans too upset. In fact, it’s the hardcore fans that will really appreciate what “An Unexpected Journey” has to offer, because there are plenty of moments that push the limits of what’s necessary to telling the story versus what would have been better saved for the inevitable extended edition. Some of these moments are either stretched too long (as is the case with the meeting at Bilbo's house) or just pure filler, and at times, it feels like the movie is holding itself back in the fear that it's covering too much too soon.
If there’s any benefit to this, it’s that the audience gets even more time to spend with Tolkien’s colorful cast of characters. Martin Freeman quickly proves that he was the perfect choice to play young Bilbo with his ability to juggle comedy and drama, while Ian McKellan effortlessly slides back into the role of Gandalf like he never stopped playing the wily wizard. The dwarves are another matter, as there are too many to distinguish who’s who, let alone get to know them as well as the characters in the Fellowship, but a few of them (played by Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner) stand out from the pack. Armitage, in particular, is awesome as the dwarven leader Thorin, and he’s the closest thing to a replacement for Aragorn in the story. The movie’s real MVP doesn’t show up until the final act, but once Andy Serkis’ Gollum crawls out of the darkness to play that famous game of riddles with Bilbo, you'll quickly remember just how great of a character he is, and more importantly, how much you missed him. There are a few other familiar faces that pop up throughout the course of the film, and although they feel a little forced in execution, it does help tie the two trilogies together.
That’s even more important with Jackson back behind the camera, because he’s maintained the same tone (a near-perfect balance of action, comedy and drama) and breathtaking visuals that were prevalent in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. It’s amazing how incredible the CG looks – especially the lead orc villain Azog and the few shots we see of Smaug – because the special effects were already pretty groundbreaking ten years ago when the first trilogy was made. Jackson has also crafted some excellent action sequences, with the dwarves’ escape from the Misty Mountains ranking up there with some of the best in the series. Though it would have been interesting to see what Guillermo del Toro did with the material, it just wouldn’t be the same without Jackson, because while the film falls a bit short of “The Lord of the Rings” (whether due to high expectations or the potentially harmful three-movie plan), “An Unexpected Journey” is a terrific start to the "Hobbit" trilogy that feels every bit the epic that it was intended to be.