It’s been nine years since moviegoers were able to visit J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth with the “Lord of the Rings” finale “The Return of the King.” Now, director Peter Jackson goes back to that magical land with a new trilogy based on the “LOTR” prequel “The Hobbit.”
“An Unexpected Journey” begins with the same scene that “The Fellowship of the Ring” opened with, that of Bilbo Baggins’s one-hundred and eleventieth birthday at the Shire. Elijah Wood returns as Frodo, unaware of what’s to come for him in the “LOTR” trilogy. We then go back sixty years when a young Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman of “Sherlock” fame, finds Gandalf the Grey knocking at his door. The wizard informs the hobbit he has been selected for an adventure. Not used to adventure, Bilbo wants nothing more than to stay home, but reluctantly joins Gandalf and a company of dwarves on a quest to retake their home, the Lonely Mountain, which was taken over by the dragon Smaug.
The first adventure in the new trilogy plays out much like it did in “Fellowship,” with the group going to the elf home of Rivendale before truly setting off on their quest. Even the climactic battle is reminiscent of the orc battle in the Mines of Moria.
“An Unexpected Journey” covers the first six chapters of “The Hobbit” and includes portions of Tolkien’s addendum to the story, which appear at the end of “Return of the King.” By leaving nothing out, it seems as if Jackson wants to make the definitive version of “The Hobbit,” combining all of the story’s elements into one trilogy, even if the addendum material has a tone that’s darker than the novel.
The stakes may not be as high in “The Hobbit” as they were in the “Rings” trilogy, but Middle Earth is still just as wondrous a place to visit as it ever was. Jackson’s sweeping camera movements are never more at home than in the sweeping landscape of his native New Zealand, which he shoots all of the Tolkien films at. Sir Ian McKellan slips into the robes of Gandalf as if he never left the role, and Freeman brings the perfect mix of naivety and wonderment to the young Bilbo, and Andy Serkis once again dazzles as Gollum. Watching “The Hobbit” is like slipping into a pair of old gloves that are as comfortable now as they were when they were purchased.
One of the more bold decisions Jackson made was to film “The Hobbit” in 48 frames-per-second as opposed to the usual 24 frames, which gives the movie a more realistic look. Too realistic, in fact. It’s distracting, makes the sets look fake and doesn’t work. The movie looks like you’re watching it through the smooth motion option on a high-definition television. Avoid seeing the film in the higher frame rate if at all possible.
Because of the commitment to making three films out of “The Hobbit,” “An Unexpected Journey” tends to lag, and there’s reason to believe the same will happen in the next two films, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again.” For anyone who loves spending time in Middle Earth, this shouldn’t be a problem.