The proper title of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 illustrated children's book is “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” But in the first installment of Peter Jackson's thunderously busy and intricately detailed new trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” so much time is spent laying groundwork and introducing multiple characters and plotlines that the motley pilgrims of the tale don't even make it “there,” much less “back again.”
Comprising approximately the first six chapters of Tolkien's 19-chapter tome, “An Unexpected Journey” clocks in at just under three hours. (Subsequent films, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again,” will complete the story.) And while this epic-sized opening sports all the large-tableaux spectacle and deeply textured, minute detail upon detail that distinguished Jackson's vision in the three “Lord of the Rings” movies (thanks to his New Zealand-based team of production designers, art directors, costumers, makeup artists and CGI wizards), the film seems decidedly slow getting off the mark.
It opens in Middle-earth's quaint Shire where we meet the slightly fuddy-duddy Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, low-keyed and likable), whose pastoral peace is interrupted in a grand appearance by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, wise and wily). Gandalf is there to recruit the reluctant Bilbo for a mysterious mission, and before he knows it Bilbo finds his tidy underground cottage overrun with 13 rowdy, roguish Dwarves (a comic sequence that drags on far too long).
Unable to resist the entreaties of Gandalf or the rough challenge of the Dwarves' smoldering leader, Thoren Oakenshield (brusque Richard Armitage), Bilbo finds himself swept up in a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor and its massive heaps of gold from the fearsome dragon Smaug.
This begins the unexpected journey that will take the pilgrims into the Wild, through treacherous territories teeming with hideously disfigured Orcs and Goblins, snarling Wargs and humongous spiders, grizzled Sorcerers and a mysterious death figure known as the Necromancer.
It's here that clues to how Jackson (and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) are managing to expand Tolkien's simple story and pedestrian prose into three heroic films. In one instance, as the travelers are trekking along a craggy cliff in the Misty Mountains, the gnarly boulders around them come alive and morph into Granite Giants engaged in a crushing, stone-flinging battle. It's a CGI spectacle that runs several minutes but is described in only a paragraph or two in Tolkien's book.
One of the film's most riveting sequences takes place when Bilbo gets separated from the Dwarves and finds himself lost beside a spooky underground lake. There he first encounters the feral, bug-eyed Gollum (the magnificent shape shifter Andy Serkis), discovers his own deep wells of wit and courage and seizes from Gollum the “precious” ring that figures so critically in the earlier/later “Ring” trilogy.
Although the first third of the journey is given over to lots of grand chases, battles and adventures – plus Bilbo's halting transformation from timid Hobbit to hero – the story this far seems to lack the grand sweep and propulsive urgency that made the LOTR films so utterly compelling. Perhaps the encounter with Smaug will breathe some fire into installment two, after all this requisite table setting.
Still, given the film's rich, nubby texture and amazing depth of detail (even in traditional 2D format, not to mention the High Frame Rate 3D, which is dazzling or woozy-making, depending on your point of view), Tolkien fans will undoubtedly relish this lengthy, literal interpretation and sign on zealously for the next two legs of the journey.
— Dennis King
An Unexpected Journey'
Starring: Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage.
(Extensive sequences of
intense fantasy action violence
and frightening images)