Sure, Guillermo del Toro would have been a fair choice to replace Peter Jackson in the telling of the beginnings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings world with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But, since Jackson decided he'd undertake the challenge after much thought, fans of the series and film fanatics alike should exalt.
Introduced in the first The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey clip, our story follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins that he hinted at in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The wizard, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, was clearly deeply enamored with the Baggins family, as seen in that first film. We learn the origins of that admiration in the first of the new Middle Earth trilogy.
We meet Bilbo as a young man, impeccably played by Martin Freeman. He is living a simple life, and one he adores in the Shire. When Gandalf appears and attempts to take him on an adventure, the resistance is strong, especially when dwarf after dwarf appears at his door and begins to decimate his pantry of wine, lager and food. Gandalf does nothing except let them ransack Bilbo's house while hoping that their troubles will influence his new Hobbit friend. It seems that Smaug the Golden, a fierce dragon, has taken over the dwarfs' mountain home and is unrelenting in his effort to keep them away from their birthright land.
Even though he hears their tragic story, Bilbo is not fazed. Clearly there would be no adventure if he didn't change his mind, and it is glorious how Jackson plays that deeply emotional decision out.
Those expecting a repeat of the weight of The Lord of the Rings story will be deeply disappointed. Tolkien's The Hobbit is meant as a children's tale and significantly more playful... yet don't get us wrong, there still is adrenaline-pumping action to spare in Jackson's latest epic. Audiences get a glimpse into characters from the first trilogy in The Hobbit, but you won't find Movie Fanatic spilling those secrets. Judging by the many stills and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey trailer, we clearly know that Cate Blanchett has returned -- as has Hugo Weaving. So, yes, there are elves. But, how they weave into the story is not what one would expect... at least in this first chapter!
The sequence where we re-meet Gollum (Andy Serkis) is honestly the most treasured of the film. The stop-motion is top notch and his appearance is as it should be: Still evil-looking, but clearly 60 years younger. His interactions with Bilbo, without giving away anything, are short... but astounding.
Jackson shot The Hobbit with a 48 frames-per-second rate and there has been much discussion about the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of that endeavor. We saw the film in 3D and in 48 fps and can say that it does take some adjustment. It will not, or should not, make you sick as some have reported. But what it does do is bring Middle Earth to life as never seen before. The feel of the vast landscape reminds us of witnessing a nature show on a hi-def television. Now, some film purists may scoff at that idea. It does work, but it comes down to a matter of taste. The film is available in 24 fps and in 2D -- it simply is up to the viewer how to take in Jackson's latest masterpiece.
The Hobbit does feel a little long -- especially considering this is the first part of a trilogy that is based on a single book -- versus The Lord of the Rings' three-part novel. Knowing the story (this writer adores the novel The Hobbit even more than The Lord of the Rings), there is still much to tell -- definitely two more movies' worth. However, this first film still clocks in on the longer side.
As a film, it is epic. The vast landscape, the tale of right standing up against wrong and the action sequences all recall the magic of the first trilogy. It must be stated in our The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review, that this is a vastly different story than Lord of the Rings, and therefore audiences should not enter the theater expecting a new tale featuring familiar characters in the same emotional peaks and valleys as before.
The movie stands on its own and is powerful within its own right.