Many faces from the old gang turn up in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But to keep things interesting, director Peter Jackson also adds some fresh new creations for the continuation of the franchise he built on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy will recognize much in Jackson’s new prequel, while neutral observers should be entertained enough, even if the bumpy screenplay lacks the seamless stories of its predecessors.
The Hobbit sports the requisite action scenes filled with extravagant special effects, all filmed at an innovative 48 frames a second for maximum beauty and clarity. At its core, however, the story is not about a quest for a ring, but an attempt to prove bravery and worth.
In addition to Jackson’s masterful filling of his screens from top to bottom, his production crew turns in astonishing work all around, including the flavorful costumes and colorful sets. Jackson also uses his New Zealand countryside to great advantage, spreading his creations across its vast fields.
Four writers provide the screenplay from Tolkien’s novel, which is then told in flashback by the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). The wordy narration harks back 60 years to when young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is tapped for action by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen).
They join a group of 13 rowdy dwarfs, headed by legendary warrior Thorin (Richard Armitage), who doubts Bilbo from the start, forcing him to prove his worth. The challenge paves the way for Bilbo’s current and future adventure, one headed here by a generous offering of new creatures — orcs, wargs, shapeshifters and various other nightmarish monsters.
The scenario lends itself to Jackson’s penchant for CGI spectacle, particularly in a cave scene near the end when everyone involved faces off over breathtaking cliffs, rope bridges and fiery pits. He compensates for earlier drawn-out scenes by finishing with rousing battles.
Since Gandalf takes a greater role here than in Lord of the Rings, McKellen has more spoken lines, enabling his perfect diction to clearly and distinctly outline the proceedings, and, particularly, the names of the players burdened with Tolkien’s unpronounceable names. Freeman’s meek persona works to his advantage while playing the mousy, diminutive Hobbit.
The film is a boys’ club until Cate Blanchett makes a perfunctory, brief reappearance as Galadriel.
Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and select others reappear, as does Andy Serkin as Gollum, an unpleasant character who ominously promises to return in future installments, all presaged by the film’s ironic, last spoken words, by Bilbo: “I do believe the worst is behind us.”
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Rated PG-13, 169 minutes.