December 14, 2012 "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Studio: New Line Cinema Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.
Before J.R.R. Tolkien told us a story about "the one ring to rule them all", He spun a slightly simpler yarn focusing on quest by a group of dwarves, a wizard and a hobbit.
Based on Tolkien's classic book, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the tale of how Bilbo Baggins came to possess his fabled ring.
Gandalf the Grey, once again masterfully played by Ian McKellen, makes a surprise visit to Bilbo's home. He convinces his small friend to join forces with a number of dwarves who are determined to make their way to Lonely Mountain and take back their home from the evil dragon Smaug.
However, there are some bumpy moments before the trip even begins as Bilbo meets his companions.
Once they get on their way on the way the travelers encounter all sorts of danger from goblins to orcs to giant beasts. Bilbo gets separated from his companions and encounters a stranger who will change his life forever.
Gollum makes a brief appearance, but it is memorable.
Where "The Lord Of The Rings" was a soaring tale of good and evil, "The Hobbit" deals with some of the same issues on a much more personal level. Martin Freeman's Bilbo is a strong lead. But...in the early going he frets and fusses in a performance we've seen from several English actors. Thankfully, he eventually settles down a bit and delivers a strong performance. McKellen's Gandalf is full of mischief and gravity, switching between the two effortlessly. It feels like the return of an old friend.
Despite the high points, there is a problem with a large cast like this. So many new faces are introduced that I really didn't get a feeling of who any of the dwarves were. None stood out, they all just blended together as a group.
The exception is Richard Artmitage as the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield. He is a powerful yet tragic figure whose story unwinds like a classic Shakespearean fable.
Of course, Gollum's reappearance is probably the film's best moment. Andy Serkis' computer-generated creation looks better than ever. The cursed being has some great back and forth with Bilbo.
Director Peter Jackson is certainly comfortable with this world and he brings it effortlessly back to life. Jackson's feeling for action is a gift and he stages several memorable sequences. But much of the first part of the film sets up the journey and at times it drags. There's a lot of sitting around and talking, then going somewhere else and sitting around and talking some more.
Stretching "The Hobbit" into three films is a challenge. Jackson is slavishly faithful to the source material, perhaps too much so. A bit of editing and cutting would have served him well. He could have save some of what is on screen for an extended home video release version.
Overall I enjoyed it, but I'm left wondering how the next two installments will play out and if they will feel as padded as this one does.
On my rating scale, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" earns a TRIPLE.