Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may lack some of the epic feeling the director managed to capture with The Lord of the Ring films, but it is massively entertaining and quite funny at times.
The movie seems to lack the focus of the Rings films with no clear cut villain – other than a dragon that is barely seen throughout the journey and an albino orc with a grudge. Still, Jackson and company manage to keep the audience spellbound by beautiful landscapes, huge action sequences; incredible use of CGI, and a company of dwarves that could give the Three Stooges a run for their money when it comes to delivering the laughs.
Based on J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit and with a screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, the film sees Sir Ian McKellen return for the role of the wizard Gandalf. He is joined by Martin Freeman as a younger Bilbo (Ian Holm also appears an old Bilbo), and a company of dwarves played by Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, and Adam Brown. The film also has appearances from Lord of the Ring actors Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum.
The film opens with an elderly Bilbo (Holm) beginning to write the story of his adventure and sharing a quick history of Middle Earth and the fate that befell a clan of Dwarves whose king became obsessed with gold and drew the attention of a huge dragon named Smaug – who took over their keep and drove them from their home forever.
With the backstory loosely established, the audience is introduced to a young Bilbo (Freeman) as he comes across Gandalf the Grey (McKellen). The wizard is in need of a burglar for an adventure he is getting ready to take. Seeing how Bilbo is quite content to never leave his shire, Gandalf does his best to get Bilbo to agree to go on the adventure before having the door slammed in his face by Bilbo.
Satisfied that he avoided an attempted adventure, Bilbo’s dinner is interrupted by a knock at the door and a dwarf that seems to think he has been invited for a meeting at Bilbo’s house. Before he knows what is happening, Bilbo’s home is filled with dwarves that are hungry, thirsty and somewhat destructive (the dinner scene gives the film some of its best laughs).
The party takes a somber tone with the arrival of the group’s leader Thorin (Armitage) and Bilbo soon discovers he has been assigned the task of being the party's burglar. Thorin (who my wife referred to as Sexy Dwarf) is determined to reclaim his clan's kingdom and treasure. Bilbo is anything but eager to go on the adventure, but soon finds himself chasing after the party with the contract in hand.
From there, the film’s plot gets a bit messy and doesn’t seem quite as structured as The Lord of the Ring films. Along the way, Bilbo and the band of dwarves will run across a group of hungry trolls (in the film’s funniest scene); battle a wave of goblins and their king; and eventually face off against an Orc with a grudge and an army of his own. There are also side plots involving Radagast the Brown (McCoy) and an evil he warns Gandalf is coming, and a stopover with the elves - which features several appearances from characters from The Lord of the Rings films.
By far the best scenes of the film involve Martin Freeman's Bilbo and Andy Serkis' Gollum. The two actors manage to steal the entire movie with their battle of riddles and Serkis again shows he is the best at making a CGI character seem so real that the audience feels the pain of Gollum as he struggles to find his precious ring.
Sadly, just as the movie feels like it is starting to fire on all cylinders, the end credits roll and we are forced to wait for December 13, 2013, for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Making a trilogy of The Lord of the Rings films worked because each felt like a self-contained movie to some degree. The Hobbit doesn’t work quite as well and at times seems like it is just a hodge-podge of too many characters and not enough story. Some scenes seem to be stuck into the movie just to give it some length and have no direct bearing on the plot (or at least not yet).
On Blu-ray, the film looks beautiful, and it is nice to see Middle Earth come to life again on screen. It is a little light on special features, but does include 10 production videos that take fans into the making of the film and the huge undertaking it was to bring the story to the screen.
Even with its problems, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is entertaining from start to finish and Jackson manages to live up to some of the expectations that many fans had for the movie. The film captures all the magic of The Lord of the Rings films and it is great to see the seeds planted that will grow into Frodo’s story.
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