An 'Unexpected Journey' meets challenge of Tolkien epic

Warner Bros. photo by JAMES FISHERIan McKellen reprises his The Lords of the Rings role as the wizard Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Warner Bros. photo by JAMES FISHERIan McKellen reprises his The Lords of the Rings role as the wizard Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Reviewer's Rating: ★★★1/2

Odds are that hordes of moviegoers will be returning to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth this holiday season.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the latest film adaptation of a Tolkien book by The Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson, is such an immersive experience that movie theater crowds will feel as if they’ve never left the land of hobbits, goblins, orcs, the occasional wizard and that greedy, slimy little monster, Gollum.

Jackson and the massive team of filmmakers and cast members he worked with rose to the challenge of placing Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings fantasy-adventure triptych on the screen. They did so in grand, exciting style. And each successive film in the series improved upon the previous entry. 2003’s The Return of the King made for a smashing conclusion to the series, winning 11 Oscars. But Jackson ultimately decided he had more Tolkien work to do.

The Hobbit is set 60 years before The Lord of the Rings. It’s centered upon Bilbo Baggins, uncle of The Lord of the Rings’ hobbit hero, Frodo Baggins.

Like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is being adapted into a trilogy, even though it’s but a single Tolkien book. Not bothering to mention the obvious commercial motivation, Jackson cites Tolkien’s extensive, published notes for The Hobbit as a resource and blueprint for the new trilogy.

Advancements in film technology, too, in both production and exhibition, is another reason to revisit Middle-earth.

Jackson shot An Unexpected Journey with digital cameras in 3D at 48 frames per second. That’s twice as many frames per second as the 80-year standard of 24 frames per second. The results are amazingly clera and often gorgeous.

Technology and potential box office aside, the first duty of An Unexpected Journey is to entertain. Jackson and his minions succeed in that, to the point of making Middle-earth 60 years before The Lord of the Rings feel like a visit to dear old friends and a confrontation with nasty old enemies.

Technological progress, not to mention fashion, apparently move very slowly in Middle-earth. Bilbo Baggins and his semi-18th century outfit, his comfy hillside hobbit house and the partially subterranean Hobbit village are familiar yet more realistically present on the screen than ever.

So, too, is Gandalf the Grey, the wizard whose lifespan is such that he’s also a character in The Lord of the Rings. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, the well-meaning wizard who sets the events of An Unexpected Journey in comic motion. McKellen easily slips back into the good-humored wizard’s silver hair, beard and robe.

Martin Freeman co-stars as Bilbo, an initially annoying little hobbit who wants nothing more than to live his life of ease in the hobbits’ idyllic village in the shire.

But the meddlesome Gandalf has epic plans for Bilbo. The wizard picks the young hobbit to join a squad of 13 Dwarves led by the warrior dwarf prince, Thorin Oakenshield (played by the truly fearsome Richard Armitage).

Bilbo’s unexpected journey begins when Gandalf invites himself and the 13 dwarves to dinner at the hobbit’s house. The movie milks the scene’s comic potential as the mystified, increasingly irritated Bilbo is helpless against this raucous wizard-and-dwarf home invasion.

As much fun as seeing high-spirited, rough-neck dwarves having their way with a skittish and confused hobbit’s house is, the business at hand is deadly serious. Gandalf and the dwarves ask Bilbo to join them in a likely suicide mission to reclaim the gold- and jewel-filled kingdom of Erebor. A treasure-coveting dragon has been occupying the displaced dwarves’ homeland for generations.

An Unexpected Journey more than lives up to its title. Bilbo is in for a scary yet wondrous ride. Despite the movie’s nearly three-hour length, this first installment of Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy stays entertaining, without feeling padded for the sake of stretching one book into three movies. And beneath all the action, wonder and dread, the hobbits, dwarves, wizards and monsters, it’s a moving, human tale and promising start to this new trilogy.