If you love Peter Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings films, there’s nothing to hate or fear here (unless you buy the super-chubby size soda).
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Of course, we all know OF Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), but how well do you THE Bilbo Baggins? Starting at the beginning of his own adventure, a sixty-year younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is set upon by the old wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a company of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The great dragon Smaug took for himself a dwarven kingdom of gold that lay inside the Lonely Mountain, but it has not been heard of or seen in some sixty years and is believed dead. Several factions may be planning to loot the treasure trove, but the dwarves are armed with a map, a key, and their courage to take back their homeland for themselves. They do, however, have need of a burglar, and Gandalf thinks he’s found just the one.
To put all fears to rest, this isn’t The Lord of the Rings: The Phantom Menace. J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit” was a children’s story that hinted at the events that would become the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but in and of itself, it is neither really big enough to support three movies nor violent enough to support the existing fanbase. The appendices for Rings were reportedly looted along with bits of embellishment to create enough material to support two (no wait, make that three films), but if this first installment is any indication, fans the world over aren’t going to mind parting with more of their hard-earned cash. Waiting a year between films? Well, they’ll just have to get over that.
On to the nitpicks. The 48 frames-per-second be damned, the movie looks great in 24 fps digital with or without the 3D. The creatures have seamlessly stepped up, from Gollum himself (Andy Serkis) to the trolls and the goblin king. Fans of the original trilogy know that all the goodies are in the extended editions, but An Unexpected Journey already feels like one; at no point does anything feel abbreviated or edited for time (so think twice about how big a soda you’re going to buy if so inclined). It’s a film that caters to the fanbase, with an introduction that links the old to the new as well as a few unexpected cameos by beloved characters. Liberties taken in the name of high adventure to up the action stretch credibility, including a running escape sequence that repeatedly feels inspired by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but this isn’t too much of a problem since the characters on screen have no sense of their guaranteed survival.
Fans will recognize locations from the “later” films as places Bilbo and company had already visited before Frodo’s time (which will be even cooler when watched in order after the prequels are completed). In spite of everything being well done, the movie doesn’t quite live up to The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie that had to both introduce Middle Earth to filmgoing audiences and also set the stage for two more movies afterward. An Unexpected Journey feels very joined at the hip with Fellowship, winking at the audience rather than standing completely on its own (which Lucas actually managed to do with The Phantom Menace). Fortunately, few are going to mind, least of all Peter Jackson fans. Welcome back, Middle Earth.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)