Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown
Rated: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Fans of Middle-Earth, rejoice! A new movie is out, ready to take you to that land of Elves, Hobbits, and Dwarves. It’s also making use of the new high frame-rate technology available for 3D projection, so if you’re a film tech nerd, it’s doubly exciting. This isn’t a non-stop action thriller, of course; as with “The Fellowship of the Ring,” it’s setting a trilogy in motion and starts off slow. Still, there’s a lot to love for all but the anti-fantasy crowd and hardcore Tolkien purists.
A more accurate name for this first installment of what is to be a trilogy would be “Some Things That Happened Before the Lord of the Rings, Part 1” Peter Jackson and his team have taken J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit” and used it as a framework, filling in events described in the appendices from “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Silmarillion,” and other Tolkien works so that it forms a more detailed backstory for the events of “The Lord of the Rings.”
Our hero is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular Hobbit, whose simple and sedentary life is upended when he’s recruited to be part of an expedition to reclaim the ancient Dwarven city of Erebor. A dragon drove out the Dwarves a long time ago, and Thorin (Richard Armitage), who was a young prince then, is determined to retake the home of his ancestors. With him are a dozen Dwarves ranging from very young to very old. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is also lending some assistance, and he’s the one who chooses Bilbo for the adventure.
Bilbo is at first deeply reluctant, but he joins the company anyway. In this first installment, he winds up facing Goblins, Wargs, and Storm Giants, to name but a few of the monsters the group encounter en route. All, of course, will pale in comparison to the dragon, once he’s encountered. We are given only glimpses — a shadow in flashback, a massive eye opening under a pile of gold coins – but they are very promising glimpses. Meanwhile, many, many plot lines are set in motion here, from the appearance of a dark magic in Mirkwood to conflict between Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the rest of the White Council.
There’s a lot to like here, starting with Freeman’s performance as Bilbo. The poor fellow is upper-class, a solid member of the bourgeoisie — and he finds himself backpacking across mountains with a bunch of Dwarves who have been living as refugees and exiles and thus have little sympathy for his desire for the finer things in life, like clean handkerchiefs. He’s utterly out of his element, and Freeman shows us not only Bilbo’s discomfort and unsuitability but also the underlying goodness and determination that will ultimately make him the aged hero we met in “Lord of the Rings.”
The Dwarves are engaging. Purists will find a lot to dislike, no doubt (Kili has no beard, and dark hair, for one thing, and Azog is dogging their steps), but newcomers and forgiving fans will enjoy getting to know the varied personalities and appearances. McKellan’s Gandalf is wonderful as always, a blend of mischief and deathly seriousness.
Those who find 3D dim, blurry, and annoying may want to give the HFR 3D a try — it gives the film a crystal clarity that is almost disorienting, especially during quick pans. Normal 3D essentially gives each eye half the number of film frames, while HFR 3D doubles the total number and gives each eye a full 24 frames per second, the same as a regular movie. It’s breathtaking, and well worth checking out if you have an interest in film tech or like the idea of 3D but find it gives you a headache.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a setup film, and gets off to a slow start. Like Tolkien’s books, this is for people who enjoy the journey of a story and don’t require constant plot excitement to stay engaged. If you loved Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films and want more Middle-Earth, you’re likely to enjoy yourself. If you missed those films, a lot of the references and setup here will likely make little sense, so either see them first, or prepare for a film that is starting a number of plot threads without showing how they’re related.