Martin Freeman stars as the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.
Having already achieved universal acclaim for helming the three-film cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” director Peter Jackson now kicks off the prequel trilogy with the first installment of his adaptation of “The Hobbit.”
The first film in the series, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” is vibrant, impeccably cast, exhilarating and fun … but it never quite achieves the artistic virtuosity of Jackson’s previous forays into Tolkien Middle-earth.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” primarily follows the journey of its title character, Bilbo Baggins. Baggins is enticed by the Wizard Gandalf the Grey to participate in an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from an intimidating dragon named Smaug.
Though it goes against his passive disposition, Bilbo ultimately agrees, joining a company of 13 dwarves led by a legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey takes them far from Biblo’s beloved Shire, through treacherous lands patrolled by Orcs and deadly Wargs and home to Goblins and Trolls. Meanwhile, a growing menace casts a shadow over Middle-earth. The Wizard Radagast the Brown discovers an evil power, the Necromancer, has taken up residence in Dol Guldur in Mirkwood.
As the make their way east toward the Lonely Mountain, the members of the company face increasingly daunting challenges … and Bilbo meets a creature who will change his life and shape the destiny of Middle-earth.
While the source material provides sufficient substance, Jackson veers from the written word to expand the narrative. Sometimes his flights of fancy flourish; sometimes, it just seems like he’s being overindulgent.
It has been nine years since “The Return of the King” – the last film in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy – was released. It is evident that Jackson missed playing in the sandbox of Tolkien’s literary creation. His uninhibited zeal is particularly apparent in an unnecessarily long cinematic prologue establishing connections to his previous films.
Instead of starting in Tolkien’s familiar “hole in the ground” – the one that isn’t “a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat,” but instead “a hobbit-hole” – Jackson launches his adaptation 60 years after the events depicted in “The Hobbit.” It’s almost as if Jackson had to find an excuse to let Elijah Wood get into costume one more time.
Jackson shoves a lot of exposition into the first hour of the movie. Audiences are forced to wait for the first taste of action, wade through the lethargic pace of the first 60 minutes and excuse the director’s excesses as he flaunts his creative license. All this might be excusable if Jackson also used this time to develop the characters fully – there are a lot of dwarves to keep track of, after all: Thorin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Dwalin, Fili, Gloin, Kili, Nori, Oin and Ori.
Real character development, though, doesn’t commence until the party gets under way and starts facing the challenges of the quest.
Once things get moving, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” delivers an enthralling phantasmagoria of repellent creatures, noble crusaders and reluctant heroes facing overwhelming odds. Jackson’s Middle-earth is as vibrant as ever, overflowing with emerald-green woodlands, soaring mountain ranges, towering dark castles and unearthly vistas.
Top-notch casting helps reinforce the quality of the film.
Jackson tapped Martin Freeman to play the central role of Bilbo Baggins. Freeman imbues Bilbo with a neurotic demeanor appropriate for someone with a disinclination toward adventure. The actor is careful not to make Bilbo’s eventual acquiescence seem like some hasty epiphany. The character’s worldview evolves over the course of the entire adventure.
Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Grey, the character he played in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. McKellen mixes authoritative charisma and humble goodwill to make Gandalf both potent and munificent, depending on the scene context.
Richard Armitage portrays Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage provides his with a brash swagger and the perfect degree of self-importance. His powerful performance makes the audience question his motivation.
Radagast the Brown is played by Sylvester McCoy. McCoy emphasizes the character’s eccentricities wonderfully, adding a comic element to the Wizard’s deportment.
Reprising their roles from "The Lord of the Rings" in "The Hobbit" Trilogy are Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Ian Holm as Old Bilbo, Christopher Lee as Saruman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Elijah Wood as Frodo and Andy Serkis as Gollum.
An undeniable asset to the previous films, Serkis again gives a hauntingly memorable performance as Gollum. The digitally animated character seems even more real – and even more disturbing – this time around.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t quite transcend its genre like Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but it is still an exceedingly entertaining film.
Bolstered by the runaway success of the previous films, Jackson gorged himself on Middle-earth imagery and mythology and asks audiences to join him at the buffet. The result is a somewhat overinflated introduction to Tolkien’s tale of a reluctant Hobbit confronting the world outside his comfort zone. Though at times the film comes off as a bit overstated, Jackson’s cinematic audaciousness still can’t overshadow the film’s visual resplendence, its compelling characters and its imaginative narrative.