Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

First episode in a trilogy based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel sends Bilbo Baggins on a journey to Lonely Mountain.

Clearly hoping for lightning to strike twice, director Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit hews closely to the fantasy template he established with his Lord of the Rings films. Whether J.R.R. Tolkien's relatively slight 1937 novel can fill out three features as easily as his massive trilogy did is something moviegoers will decide for themselves over the next few years. This first installment should draw a large audience; getting it back for rounds two and three will be more difficult.

Compared to the trilogy, Tolkien's novel was a small-scale story aimed toward younger readers. Jackson's film, on the other hand, expands The Hobbit to blockbuster proportions, basically putting the works on the same level. In a sense, Jackson was determined to remake The Lord of the Rings with better technology.

A pre-title sequence essentially repeats the opening gambit from The Fellowship of the Ring—a long battle shows how dwarves lost the kingdom of Erebor to the dragon Smaug. The Hobbit then uses characters from The Lord of the Rings—Ian Holm as an elderly Bilbo Baggins and Elijah Wood as Frodo—to introduce a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in his comfortable home in The Shire.

A prolonged and labored dinner party presents the 13 dwarves who will accompany Bilbo and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in an attempt to take back Erebor from Smaug. The dwarves display little individual personality apart from their cranky, suspicious leader Thorin (Richard Armitage). And when they break into vaguely Celtic song, The Hobbit threatens to sink into a Middle-earth parody.

Fortunately, Jackson hasn't lost his knack of propelling characters forward when he wants to—even if he has to pull in events from outside the novel itself. New Zealand locations, aided by computer wizardry, provide a majestic backdrop for the journey, which finds the band encountering menacing trolls, hostile orcs, and mountains who come alive to battle each other. Since this is Tolkien, the heroes often end up inside enormous caverns fighting off hordes of enemies.

Or they are just as likely to debate over past feuds, ticking off tongue-twisting names that only Tolkien nerds will recognize. A summit of elven leaders and wizards—Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Gandalf—highlights the film's worst tendencies, as digitally enhanced actors spout mystical irrelevancies at each other while the camera swirls around a CGI landscape.

New characters, like a dimly seen Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), the brown wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and the Goblin King (Barry Humphries), provide some diversion, but it's not until Bilbo stumbles across Gollum (a motion-capture performance by the remarkable Andy Serkis) that The Hobbit finally comes to life. Their dueling riddles blends fantasy, humor and suspense so deftly you wonder why the rest of the film feels so heavy-handed—especially a cliffhanging climax that seems to go on forever.

Flaws and all, The Hobbit is too big, and too well-made, to ignore. Jackson deserves credit for getting his vision onto the screen, even at the loss of original director Guillermo del Toro. One thing to look forward to in subsequent episodes is a bigger role for Bilbo, which will give the crafty Martin Freeman more room to show off his scene-stealing skills.

The Hobbit is screening in roughly 460 theatres at Jackson's preferred 48 frames per second. The High Frame Rate (HFR) format takes some getting used to, especially during the brightly lit opening scenes. The process presents objects with startling clarity, offering an apparently limitless depth of field. But when objects start to move, it can seem like you're watching a very expensive high-definition television.