Peter Jackson certainly set the bar high with his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Almost a decade later, Jackson launches another trilogy based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And while legions of fans no doubt will be anxious for another adventurous trip to Middle Earth, their expectations should be lowered somewhat.
The Hobbit films are based on just one book instead of three, so there’s less ground to cover, meaning more exposition that could be eliminated, and more liberties with the script to include scenes and characters that aren’t in the book at all.
Still, while this film is way too long and might be more for Tolkien devotees than mainstream audiences, after a slow start it turns into a rousing adventure with plenty of visual flair and top-notch action sequences.
Linked to the prior trilogy through a flashback structure, this story follows the timid and neurotic young hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) on a quest to reclaim a kingdom from the clutches of an evil dragon. At the urging of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), he is joined by a ragtag band of dwarves led by the warrior Thorin (Richard Armitage) on a dangerous mission that includes encounters with trolls, goblins, sorcerers and various other creatures.
A handful of characters from the previous films make return appearances here (whether or not they were in the actual Hobbit book), including the diminutive cave-dweller Gollum, whose extended exchange of riddles with Bilbo is a pivotal highlight.
Overall, this installment is almost as much about Gandalf and Thorin as it is about Bilbo, although it does establish the latter as a hero for future adventures.
The film takes on a unique look — as a result of being shot in 3D and projected digitally at twice the speed of average films to enhance character and background details — that feels distracting at first.
However, it is a technical marvel across the board, from the seamless special effects to the breathtaking cinematography and New Zealand landscapes that helped to make the first trilogy so enthralling. Jackson’s rendering of Tolkien’s world is imaginative, even if this effort is less consistently compelling.
So while it appears this trilogy will involve more Jackson and less Tolkien, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the filmmaker can complement his style with more substance.
Rated PG-13, 169 minutes.