The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first in a new trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 Lord of the Rings prequel of the same name and directed by Peter Jackson. Starring British television favorite and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy star Martin Freeman as a young Bilbo Baggins (relative of Frodo Baggins from LOTR and previously played by Ian Holm.) The Hobbit follows Bilbo as he embarks on a journey across Middle Earth to reclaim a lost dwarven homeland with the great wizard Gandalf (a role reprised by Sir Ian McKellen) and a band of misfit dwarves. Unlike Jackson’s previous Tolkien films, The Hobbit sets aside the epic battles and focuses more on the intimate details of Middle Earth.
It’s evident from the start that The Hobbit is geared at a younger audience than Jackson’s previous outings. With bodily humor and some borderline cartoonish characters, it might make previous fans of the series wonder whether Lord of the Rings is entering its Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace era of cheesiness. This fear rings the most true throughout the first half of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime. The Hobbit opens with the same kind of world-building monologue previously used in LOTR. There are fibers of that universe woven into The Hobbit that are brushed through this first installment but won’t have a genuine payoff until later films, making the initial 20 minutes feel like more of a deleted scene than a proper opening. Once the dwarves (of which there are thirteen) are introduced through a comical series of entrances, the film begins to feel less meandering and more goal-oriented. Out of the thirteen dwarves there are only about three who are central to the story; the rest just feel like a gaggle of fart jokes and plot contrivances.
The leader of the dwarven party is named Thorin Oakenshield (played by the brilliant Richard Armitrage.) Thorin’s hot temper and sordid past bring of a lot of life to the otherwise drab opening half and Armitage’s performance is surprisingly layered for a man whose appearance is covered in prop-hair and makeup. The other dwarves of note are Balin the Elder (Ken Stott) and Bofur (James Nesbitt,) both of whom take relatively small roles and make them shine. The rest of the dwarves’ party fade into the background and you’ll most likely only remember the wacky facial hair as a means to distinguish each character. Jackson does his best to give each character their “moment” but it will probably take another film to fully flesh them out. Still, no character feels out of place and only serve to elevate the performances of the leads.
The Hobbit doesn’t hit full steam until halfway through its three hours. Upon a second viewing, the first half doesn’t seem as tedious, but it’s still something most people will have trouble sitting through more than once. However, once the film hits its stride, it becomes one of the more thrilling and exciting fantasy adventures since… Well, Lord of the Rings. Watching Martin Freeman sink into the role of Bilbo is a wonderful thing to behold, as he displays a massive amount of emotional insight into the character and the audience is never in question of his bold choices. The most enjoyable sequence of The Hobbit takes place in the deep caverns of a mountain as Bilbo encounters Gollum (a role that is once again played through motion capture by the outstanding Andy Serkis.) It is an absolute delight to see Serkis play Gollum again on the big screen and the small advances in CGI have made the character feel more tangible than ever. If the Academy recognized motion capture as an equal acting platform, Serkis would be a lock for a best actor nomination this year.
It’s obvious that Peter Jackson has taken the soft pace of The Hobbit into consideration and borrows heavily from the Lord of the Rings appendices to fill out the larger game at play (which casts a shadow on the events of The Hobbit and ties directly LOTR.) It’s a smart move as it will give new fans of the series an entry-point into the other films and satisfies the important need for action in an otherwise dry story. Fans of Lord of the Rings will appreciate the continuity of The Hobbit as well as the efforts the cast and crew have taken to make Middle Earth feel more intimate than ever. If there’s anything to take away from this first chapter in this new and promising trilogy it’s that Jackson hasn’t made a film motivated by a paycheck, but by genuine love for the source material. With its successful run over the holiday season, it’s safe to say fans of The Hobbit are equally as motivated by their love for the series, and rightly so.