It has been over a decade since Peter Jackson adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released, followed in the subsequent years by the adaptation of the Two Towers and The Return of the King, respectively.Since then, there had been speculation as to whether or not Jackson would return to Tolkien's world. After many delays, including changes in director (Guillermo Del Toro was slated to direct) and New Zealand union issues, and much anticipation The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has hit the theatres and, while it is a worthy addition to the series of films before it, it unfortunately doesn't rise to the same heights.
But then, that should not be a surprise, given that the stakes in The Hobbit are not quite as high as in LOTR. This story, told as an extended flashback taking place just prior to Gandalf the Grey's (Sir Ian McKellen, reprising the role) arrival in Hobbiton in Fellowship, tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm in "present day", Sherlock's Martin Freeman in flashback), a simple Hobbit who lives simply but is thrust into the company of a band of dwarves in exile led by Thorin (Richard Armitage, Captain America: The First Avenger, Strike Back) who are attempting to reclaim their kingdom and gold from the evil dragon Smaug. Throughout, he is beset with danger and excitement, including a fateful meeting with a certain individual that will change not only the course of Bilbo's life, but the fate of Middle Earth as well.
This film is the first of three, built not only from the source novel but also from the appendices from "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion", thus serving as a prequel series that bridges the gap between this series of films and LOTR. A serious undertaking, to be sure, but not an entirely successful one. To a degree, the events in this film seem to go on longer than they should, working so much as padding and filler to justify the existence of another three film epic. It should be noted that the events of the novel unfolded at an almost lackadaisical pace, given Tolkien's rich language and attention to detail. On the big screen in modern cinema, however, those who are not devotees of the work would find the pacing to be plodding and borderline repetitive.
However, whatever complaints of pacing exist, are made up for by the visual realization of Tolkien's world. There is a certain feel of homecoming in the revisiting of locales such as Rivendell and Hobbiton, though shot at different angles to convey a sense of newness to the familiarity. Unfortunately, Peter Jackson's insistence of shooting the film at 48 frames per second, while giving the visuals a more realistic effect, works against the film as much as for it. Some have said that the film speed makes Tolkien's world too visually mundane; a debatable argument as it did not detract from the artistry of the set design. However, at times the actors movements are unintentionally sped up to almost comical effect. Also, much of the special effects, almost seamless in the original cinematic trilogy, are jarringly out of place. In many places the CGI is glaringly obvious, and in others, undermined (such as the glow stick nature of Bilbo's sword, "Sting", in distance shots). However, in some instances, the effects have clearly evolved since The Return of the King, as there are very few visual sleight-of-hand cheats in the height differentials of the characters.
The performances are nothing less than engaging. Receiving top billing is Sir Ian McKellan, who plays Gandalf as more befuddled than when first encountered in Fellowship, yet bringing a childlike innocence and quality to the performance; especially in his eyes (as evidenced in a scene with Galadriel). Stepping in for Ian Holm as the younger Bilbo is Martin Freeman, "Dr. Watson" of Sherlock fame (who is reunited with his Sherlock co-star and Star Trek: Into Darkness villain Benedict Cumberbatch as "The Necromancer" and the voice of Smaug). He subtly mimics Holms' mannerisms (which would only grow more pronounced with age), while infusing his own take on the character. He manages to make the character his own while still giving the impression that he is the Holm Bilbo. This film in part hinges on that believability and Freeman succeeds in the task.
The most intense performance belongs to Armitage as Thorin, who carries the weight of his people and heritage on his shoulders. Irascible as any dwarf, but imbued with a nobility that balances his gruffness and antagonism towards Bilbo. One might not care much for him by the film's beginning, but will come to by its end. Also entertaining, though short on screen time, is Sylvester McCoy (Doctor Who, Eureka) as Radagast the Brown, woodland wizard who advises Gandalf of an evil that poisons forests. He is manic, dissheveled, and lovable; somewhat reminiscent of Billy Barty's "Gwildor" in the big screen adaptation of Masters of the Universe. However, unlike Gwildor, Radagast is anything but annoying.
Cate Blanchett (The Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman The White) and Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), among others, reprise their roles from the original trilogy looking as though a decade had not passed between films (thanks to the magic of CGI pioneered in Disney's Tron: Legacy). The joy is not just seeing these characters again, but seeing them...relaxed, without the weight of the world on their shoulders, the strum and drang of the coming of Sauron's evil. Even Gollum (the wonderful Andy Serkis), while still a craven little bastard, has a bit of fun in what is perhaps this film's most anticipated scene.
Howard Shore, second only to John Williams in sheer acoustical majesty and pageantry, brings a powerful score to this film, peppered with the themes of LOTR but anchored by the dwarven theme "Song of the Lonely Mountain", a musical piece that invokes myriad of emotions. Shore is as necessary to this series as Williams is to the Star Wars saga. Andrew Lesnie's cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking; one deserving of an IMAX presentation.
All issues of pacing and film speed aside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an uneven, padded but nevertheless entertaining spectacle and a good launch to the trilogy. Time will tell if the following films will measure up.