“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is the first of three films director Peter Jackson is carving out of the short novel J.R.R. Tolkien wrote before his lengthier Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a charming hero’s quest that uses the grand scope of Jackson’s previous Tolkein films to tell a smaller, simpler story, you could almost call this prequel “Lord of the Rings Lite.”
The hero is a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Decades before the events in The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo is ripped from his life of contentment when a dozen dwarves show up at his door to recruit him for an important mission. The dwarves are exiles from a mountain city that was sacked by a terrible dragon named Smaug, and they intend to reclaim their homeland.
The matchmaker is Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a graying wizard who carries a faith in Hobbits that few share. With a little prodding, Gandalf convinces Bilbo to join the party, and from here the film becomes an interesting foil to “The Fellowship of the Ring,” as another small but determined band sets out on a journey to confront an imposing foe.
Along the way, they get into tangles with the same kinds of orcs and goblins that we saw in the previous films, and the plot foreshadows the growing evil that will threaten all of Middle Earth in the future. For now, though, the stakes aren’t quite as high, but the plight of the exiled dwarves lends weight to their more personal quest.
Gandalf and Bilbo aren’t the only familiar faces to return from the previous films. Thanks to the extended lifespans of various Middle Earth species, we get repeat performances from elves like Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). The most welcome is the return of the CGI wonder that is Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis. Sandwiched between dramatic battles, Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is strangely heartwarming, and clearly the highlight of the film.
It is appropriate that the title character comes from a species known for its oversized feet, as the Lord of the Rings trilogy has clearly given its prequel such large shoes to fill. It seems like speculation on “The Hobbit” started as soon as the credits began to roll on “Return of the King” nine years ago. “An Unexpected Journey” is a much lighter film than its predecessors, offering a degree of silliness at times that may be surprising to some audiences. But it is still a dark tale with plenty of sword-wielding and axe-swinging, and there are enough frightening images to convince parents to keep young children away.
Once again, special effects are on display in spades, this time in a hyperreal 3-D degree of sharpness that comes from filming at double the normal frame rate. The effect is kind of jarring at first, but after a little time to adjust, “The Hobbit” is truly a visual spectacle. And though it is full of content that will please longtime fans, the film more than stands on its own for those who may be newcomers to Middle Earth. Many fans have debated the wisdom of carving the much shorter “Hobbit” into three films of its own. But while Jackson has clearly fleshed out some aspects of the source material, “An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t drag nearly as much is its 169-minute running time might suggest.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is rated PG-13 for frightening images and fantasy violence.
Violence: Frightening images and violent CGI battles are scattered throughout the film. While it's mostly fantasy violence, it may be too dark for small children.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.