It's been over ten years since the first of Peter Jackson's films of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings arrived in theaters, and it honestly was starting to feel like we were overdue for a return visit. So The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels like an indulgence, expanding Tolkien's much more concise children's story into three epics bolstered with expanded subplots and backstory. And perhaps it can be said to lack the discipline used to tame the earlier material. It's just a little sloppy. But it is Middle Earth, real and sumptuous and inviting, and Jackson makes us feel at home in a fun rambling story that promises to provide three Christmases worth of ornate, overstuffed adventure.
The titular hobbit is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a typical hairy-footed burrow-dwelling Englishman leading a seemingly very typical life, when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appears on his doorstep, followed in time by 13 rambunctious dwarves. They are on a mission to take back their mountain kingdom of Erebor from the vile dragon Smaug, and they need an expert burglar, and hobbits are small and escape notice easily. After some hesitation Bilbo agrees to come along, but the road takes them through the perilous Misty Mountains, inhabited by trolls, goblins, and a band of orcs with a personal vendetta against the group's leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage.) Meanwhile, Gandalf and his fellow wizard, the eccentric nature-lover Radagast (former Time Lord Sylvester McCoy), have found evidence of an ancient and evil power growing in the forest of Mirkwood, and the wizard's attentions are torn between helping the dwarves reclaim their home and treasure, and putting an end to this mysterious threat.
Gandalf's subplot may be new to some readers of the book, but it was technically always there; he would disappear for long portions, and Tolkien got around to explaining that he and other wizards were busy carrying on a small war that presaged the return of Sauron in Lord of the Rings. The filmmakers expand on this material, which both requires and allows them to spread the story out beyond one film. I'm not sure this was a strictly necessary decision, since as above, The Hobbit is not really an epic; it's a children's adventure story mixing action and comedy and pure unadulterated whimsy, along with a few musical numbers. Drawing the story out inevitably risks dragging it out, making a story that's much longer and slower than it needs to be.
And to be sure, there are times when this is the case. A middle passage in the Elven village of Rivendell feels rather bloated, with the newly-expanded subplot threatening to overshadow the main story by some amount. It's entertaining in its own right, but this is the story of Bilbo Baggins and it's easy to get impatient and want to see it move along. The film can't help but feel uneven as a result of moving between two stories that aren't obviously connected, though there's the hope that the other two installments will tie them together more closely.
But even if the material isn't blended together as neatly as it should be, the overall experience is still a pleasurable one. We're still recognizably in Middle Earth, rendered with the same beauty as before, feeling real and old despite an abundance of CGI. It feels excessive at times and a little childish, but then this is a children's story, and the script actively calls attention to the idea of stories exaggerated and embellished in the retelling- hence a framing device in which an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) is putting this all down just as his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood in a cameo) is about to meet the wandering wizard himself.
Anchoring everything is Freeman, who having portrayed the modern everyday Englishman in the persona of Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is perfectly suited for the fantasy version. Bilbo Baggins is a conflicted fellow, driven by a hobbit's natural instinct to stay at home and not make trouble, a desire for adventure, an appreciation for comforts not often found on the road to a dragon's cave, and a desire to do right by Thorin and company. You can see he's never entirely sure of what he's doing, but once having chosen a course of action commits to it with a strange sort of honor. McKellen and the other actors returning from the trilgoy are all welcome presences, and Richard Armitage makes Thorin into a formidable hero all his own.
There are many wonderful things in this movie, from a battle between giants made of rock to a fearfully elaborate goblin city, to, of course, Bilbo's meeting with the strange creature Gollum (Andy Serkis). Sometimes it's a bit much, and a little discipline might have helped here and there, but it's still a movie that delivers- there's visual splendor backed by strong characters and a story with many moments that ring true despite their fanciful dressing. A lovely holiday spectacle, satisfying but leaving one eager for next December to roll around.
Based on the book by J. R. R. Tolkien
Screenplay by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo Del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson