Director Peter Jackson’s return to the series that earned him universal acclaim for the thrilling and masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy is an
entertaining and baffling experience all at once.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of three films adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s original Middle-earth tale about Bilbo Baggins’
finding of the infamous ring of power and his journey with wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves to reclaim their homeland from a
villainous dragon named Smaug.

It’s a far lighter, humorous affair that feels far less epic than the Rings story.  This isn’t really a fault of the filmmakers.  Telling the story in
this reverse order, however, almost makes The Hobbit seem a bit superfluous in comparison.

The real problem is that Jackson and company have taken a single novel and expanded it to ridiculous length and this is apparent from the
get go.

The film begins with an overlong introduction to the dwarves’ plight that does nothing to endear them to us.  It then begins again with a
completely unnecessary prologue featuring Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from the previous films.  I’m sure it was fun
getting the band back together, but it bogs down the film and adds nothing to this story.

The film finally gets going when Gandalf pays a visit to Bilbo decades prior.  We all know Ian McKellan is a brilliant Ganfalf and once again
he is supremely enjoyable as the old wizard.  As many will agree, Gandalf the Grey is a bit more fun than Gandalf the White (His reborn,
promoted version from The Two Towers and The Return of the King) and it’s a real treat to see him again.

Step for step is Martin Freeman as Bilbo.  An absolutely brilliant bit of casting, Freeman steps into this role and this world with ease and
perfection.  He is instantly likeable with a superb comedic sense.  In fact, one could argue the film doesn’t feature enough of Bilbo in its
latter half.

Then again, it’s relatively late in the film that Bilbo gets to participate in An Unexpected Journey’s single best sequence: the finding of the
ring and a game of riddles with the venomous Gollum.  Andy Serkis returns and gives a performance that reminds us just how great this
character is.  It’s a show-stealer and it’s written, acted and directed with the same brilliance as the previous trilogy.

But it’s a long, bumpy ride to get there.  While it is simply unreasonable to expect these films to match The Lord of The Rings, An
Unexpected Journey flounders with a series of subplots that seem (at this point) to only provide filler enough for multiple films.  The story
of the wacky Radagast the Brown’s discovery of evil in the forests of Middle-earth feels unnecessary and undeveloped and the revenge
plotline involving head-dwarf Thorin and Orc-giant Asok is a contrivance at best.

There’s also another lengthy, fairly obvious Rings-reunion scene about halfway through as Gandalf joins Saruman, Elrond and Lady
Galadriel for a council meeting.

Although in this sequence’s defense, it does conclude with a rather touching exchange between Gandalf and Galadriel.

This film is at its best when Bilbo and Gandalf are front and center. And to be honest, that is enough of the film to still recommend it to
anyone who enjoyed the Rings films, but this is a flawed film and a slight disappointment any way you look at it.

Besides the aforementioned Gollum sequence, the setup of the dwarves and Gandalf invading Bilbo’s home of Bag End is great fun and the
film’s visual showstopper is an incredible battle involving stone giants.

The dwarves’ escape from the goblins of the Misty Mountains is also a wonderfully energetic bit of action direction, showcasing another
one of The Hobbit’s intriguing attributes.  Peter Jackson chose to shoot this trilogy at 48 frames per second.  That’s double film’s standard
24, and some select theaters are capable of projecting this high frame rate presentation.  The effect is bizarre to be sure, with motion
appearing to be exceptionally smooth, affording exceptional clarity for Jackson’s more ambitious camerawork.

Many critics have slammed the format as looking unnatural and artificial. I honestly feel these people are simply complaining because they
have seen 24 fps film for their entire lives.  I could go either way.  While it does look a bit awkward at first, there is no denying the
exceptional sharpness of the wild goblin chase.  I don’t know if it’s the future of cinema or not, but there are some benefits despite its
occasionally bizarre look.

Even composer Howard Shore (Who won three Academy Awards for the magnum opus he crafted for the Rings trilogy) can’t escape without
some controversy.  While his score is quite good, it appears to be the victim of some unfortunate editing.  Anyone who has listened to the
soundtrack album will notice that many cues in the movie itself are either missing or rescored with far less original statements from the
previous films.  Why Jackson decided to rob Shore’s score of the wonderful originality we hear on the album release is baffling and
disappointing.

As we would expect, the film is a technical marvel; sporting exceptional visual effects and sound.

The art direction is also very good.  Befitting the more whimsical nature of the story itself, the design is far more colorful fantasy than the
darker realism of LOTR.

As if you couldn’t tell, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag.  Its flashes of greatness are diminished by questionable
adaptation choices that bloat the film and diminish its focus.  Still, Jackson has delivered an entertaining return to Middle-earth that shows
enough potential to give hope for its sequels.  Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo and Ian McKellen is brilliant as usual.  In spite of its flaws,
An Unexpected Journey is still recommended for fans of the series, but it rarely transcends its genre as The Lord of the Rings did so
masterfully.

* * ½
(out of four)
THE HOBBIT:
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter
Jackson & Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard
Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher

Music by: Howard Shore

Cinematography by: Andrew Lesnie

Released: December 14, 2012; 169 Minutes