Visionary director Peter Jackson takes fantasy fans back to Middle-earth and beyond in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. A visually sumptuous, frequently thrilling companion piece to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first chapter of this new saga manages to maintain a satisfying sense of momentum once the proper introductions have been made, and rarely feels as cumbersome as its nearly three-hour running time would suggest. Although constant scenes of the questing group fleeing danger on majestic mountains, through sprawling fields, and in winding caverns occasionally dredge up a nagging sense of déjà vu, Jackson's kinetic camera work and flair for fantastical (and occasionally frightening) imagery are enough to evoke a sense of wonder all over again -- even if the group's penchant for getting out of harm's way at the last possible second grows a bit repetitive as the journey careens toward a dizzying climax.
Long before Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) made his arduous journey to Mordor, his brave uncle Bilbo (Martin Freeman) embarked on an adventure for the ages. Bilbo's story gets under way when the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appears at his front gate with a most unusual offer. Displaced from their massive fortress in the Lonely Mountain by Smaug, a greedy dragon who coveted their gold, a community of noble dwarves were decimated by a surprise attack by monstrous orcs, whose dreaded leader the Pale Orc slew their king in a gruesome battle. Now, Thorin (Richard Armitage), the descendent of the king, is determined to reclaim his mountain kingdom for his people. Together with a fearless group of dwarves, Thorin and Gandalf recruit Bilbo to help them in their quest since Hobbits have the unique ability to go undetected when they wish to. But reclaiming the Lonely Mountain from Smaug will be no small task, because before Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves can reach the distant peak, they'll have to contend with trolls, goblins, stone giants, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and even the dreaded Pale Orc himself.
While some might accuse the story of being slow to start, when placed in the context of a trilogy, Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro do a commendable job of building momentum with lighthearted humor and big action. The laughs come early and often as Gandalf shows up on Bilbo's doorstep followed by a host of unruly dwarves, and the movie delivers thrills and sweeping spectacle as we learn how those boisterous dwarves were displaced from their mountaintop home by a greedy dragon and an army of orcs. Once Bilbo makes up his mind to join the group on their journey, the film hits a satisfying stride, with a number of gruesome threats giving Jackson and company the opportunity to flex their creative muscles. Shot with the same minute attention to detail that gave the Lord of the Rings trilogy such a classical feel, The Hobbit also possesses a strong visual connection to those films courtesy of returning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose artful handling of light yields sumptuous images under the sun and moon alike.
It's no revelation that The Hobbit is a special-effects-heavy movie, and while the CG animation in the Lord of the Rings looks impressive even a decade later, advances made in those ensuing ten years are apparent from the earliest scenes. From the rumbling rock giants to the elaborate underground realm of the goblins, the gifted animators and talented cast work hand in hand to make everything in this universe seem tangible. Meanwhile, some of those creations -- the malevolent Necromancer, snarling wolves, and the sinister Pale Orc in particular -- make the Wraiths of the Lord of the Rings trilogy look downright friendly by comparison, and might actually provide nightmare fodder when lunging at younger viewers in vivid 3D.
Regarding the cast, Freeman is a fine anchor for the large ensemble. Warm, cautiously inquisitive, and displaying an amiable air of uncertain courage, his Bilbo is the kind of quick-to-smile hero that audiences love to root for; we instinctively begin to trust him as much as the wise Gandalf, despite the vocal doubts of head dwarf Thorin, played with evenhanded authority by Armitage. Although the distinctive personalities of the dwarves gradually meld together once the group leave Bilbo's dining room for the Lonely Mountain, individual quirks still make them a likeable crew, and there will likely be plenty of room to flesh out their identities over the course of the coming two films. McKellen is once again in top form as Gandalf, spouting grandfatherly wisdom and occasionally using his wizardry to help the questing group out of a tight jam. Former Doctor Who star Sylvester McCoy provides a welcome dose of comic relief as mushroom-addled wizard Radagast, and Andy Serkis makes Gollum every bit as tragic and terrifying as he was in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Many skeptics will still walk out of The Hobbit questioning Jackson's decision to turn a single novel into a sprawling, three-film epic. In many ways, it might have been preferable to have just one, shorter movie to balance out the intimidating girth of the cinematic leviathan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With the exception of his unwieldy King Kong remake, Jackson has generally proven to be a smart and efficient storyteller from the very beginning, and for the most part, his take on The Hobbit gallops along at an enjoyable stride. By using the Lonely Mountain sequences as the bookends for this first installment of the new trilogy, the screenwriters of The Hobbit manage to serve up an adventure that, while perhaps not complete in a literal sense, still offers a satisfying journey for fantasy fans while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the larger tale to come. Of course, it will be another two years until audiences can judge just how effectively Jackson, Boyens, Walsh, and del Toro have expanded this smaller story for the big screen, but if The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is any indicator of things to come, this trilogy could be every bit as wondrous and exciting as the one that preceded it.