More than seventy years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a story called "The Hobbit", in which the title character somehow gets mixed up with a bunch of dwarves to reclaim missing treasure. The success and acclaim of this book led to the highly acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which years later was transformed into one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time by Peter Jackson. It was perhaps inevitable that one day Jackson would return to this territory to tackle the trials of Bilbo Baggins, but because this movie follows on the heels of a towering achievement like the LORD OF THE RINGS films, comparisons are bound to be inevitable.
Adding to the burden of the brunt is the controversial decision to extend THE HOBBIT into a trilogy. That approach worked ideally well for Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but because THE HOBBIT is a considerably shorter book (more like one third of the trilogy), it doesn't really merit the decision for three two-and-a-half hour movies. A more ideal approach would have been to film the book as a two-part series, not a trilogy. On a technical level there's nothing majorly wrong with Jackson's direction; the casting and performances are both excellent, the cinematography breathtaking as always, and the visual effects, for the most part, are as impressive as ever. The problem is that the movies are just too unnecessarily long.
In fact, it takes a whopping 45 minutes to get Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) out of his cozy home in Hobbiton to go out on his fateful quest with the eponymous wizard Gandalf (Ian MacKellen), as well as a pack of dwarves led by a brooding fellow named Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). En route, we first see a lengthy, ten-minute prologue in which the old Bilbo (played with a wavering sincerity by Ian Holm) begins writing his book about his adventures, starting with the downfall of the Dwarven city of Erebor. The subsequent half hour is basically the first chapter, in which Bilbo's quiet humble life is turned upside down when the dwarves intrude into his household and take over his pantry in no time. The nature of this scene is also noticeably more lighthearted than even the prologue of the first RINGS film, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. In all fairness, the tone of Tolkien's HOBBIT is more of a children's story and what's on the screen is more or less true to the original, but it also requires a subjective approach. Fans familiar with the book will get the gist of it and more or less be fine, but for more antsy audience members, it does require patience to sit through this scene.
Extending scenes like this aren't the only aesthetic choices that Jackson chooses to approach when tackling the story to screen. Sometimes he ends up culling information from the footnotes of Tolkien's fantasy, even borrowing bits of THE SIMILARION for good measure. For instance, we meet the wizard Radagast, an eccentric fellow who cares for animals and goes around riding on a massive "rabbit" sleigh. There is also a shady backstory involving a conflict between Thorin against a nasty-looking orc named Azgog (a mostly computer-animated villain with a vicious grin and a prosthetic arm). Finally we get a surprisingly long scene at the Elven city of Rivendell in which Gandalf converses with his colleague, the ill-fated sorcerer Saruman (Christopher Lee) about the potential return of Sauron. This is obviously meant to tie THE HOBBIT into THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, which is understandable because this is, after all, a prequel, but again, whether one is willing to sit through such slow scenes depends on the nature.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY really comes to life during the bits when it actually sticks to the story. The sequence where Bilbo and company are captured by giant trolls does justice to the book. In the second half, we get a scarifying roller-coaster style confrontation with two stone giants (a scene which nailed me to my seat) to a visit to the infamous Goblin City, ruled by a bloated fellow called the Goblin King. But the film's real highlight is the "Riddles in the Dark" sequence, a cunningly choreographed, thrilling confrontation in which Bilbo must outsmart the twisted Gollum (again brought to life by the remarkable motion capture and hoarse voice of Andy Serkis).
Despite the occasional lull in the story, though, I honestly wasn't necessarily bored at all by any of this; I have quite enjoyed Tolkien's stories and I could spend hour after hour in the fantasy world that Jackson still manages to fully realize on the screen, thanks to the luscious sets and aforementioned cinematography. And unlike George Lucas, who obviously was no great "actor's director" when it came to his weaker STAR WARS prequel trilogy, Jackson hasn't lost his ability to extol performances from his cast. Freeman was practically born to play Bilbo, embuing the character's neurotic reluctance with a charm that easily makes even the slowest parts of the film tolerable to sit through. Armitage mostly portrays Thorin as a grumpy, dour fellow who doubts his new charge, but he does so with hints of a tortured personality. Sylvestor McCoy is also quite good as the eccentric Radagast, and the dwarves are all well cast and fitting for their roles. And of course, it's gratifying to see McKellan, Lee, Serkis, and even Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel) reprise their roles.
On a more controversial move, Jackson chose to shoot this HOBBIT trilogy in High Frame Rate mode, in which the speed of the frames is increased from 24fps to 48fps. It's a bold, daring move, and in many ways it works quite well for this movie; Middle Earth looks spectacular and rich in its depth with the 3D format, but other times it gives the feel of a super-polished real-life documentary on TV rather than a film. Having said that, though, the film plays well either way so aside from the frame rate length.
Is this HOBBIT trilogy on par with the original LORD OF THE RINGS? No. But it's still well-made and executed with a style that only Jackson can do. In short, whether you decide that THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is for you depends on how much you are willing to overlook the eccentric decision to extend what is essentially a shorter story and embark on another adventure. Having said that, though, I still quite enjoyed the movie and if nothing else, it left me eager for the next chapter.