"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" starts in the manner of a slapstick comedy. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is rustling up a posse, he's got oodles of Dwarves in tow, and they are all headed to visit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Unfortunately, Bilbo isn't expecting any of them, but they roll right over his objections on their way to his kitchen stores, gorging themselves on his hard-won Hobbit food. Much merriment is had, beverages consumed, and naturally the singing of soulful songs comes into play.
The Dwarves have lost their home, and for some odd reason they need Bilbo to help them get it back. It's as if "The Lord of the Rings" has resumed, only substituting Bilbo for Frodo, and a mountain for Mordor. Gandalf believes in Bilbo, even though Bilbo himself can't emotionally get there, and certain members of the traveling Dwarf party are also dubious about the little Hobbit's abilities. The leader of this merry band of misfits, numbering 13 souls, is a dour fellow named Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Throw in Gandalf and Bilbo and you've got 15 characters to keep track of, which (naturally) is impossible.
This is not a solid start, so the film doesn't really get going until a good forty-five minutes into the narrative. This opening gambit was likely meant to help lighten the eventual doldrums that "The Hobbit" falls into, but they would have been better off just getting on with the party already. The film is called "The Hobbit," and so a conflict where the Hobbit possibly won't be involved is a stretch to sell an audience. The well-paced action scenes do deliver respite every fifteen minutes, and whenever someone is yelling "Orcs!" it's impossible not to be engaged. Orcs make for good drama, that's just screenwriting #101. Action, nostalgia, acting, and lovingly rendered landscapes are the strengths of "The Hobbit," and they can't be casually dismissed.
Credit must also be given for the level of ambition, and certain moments play wonderfully in 3-D. Director Peter Jackson has brought back all the classic standards you loved from "The Lord of the Rings" franchise, from Galadriel (Kate Blanchett) to Elrond (Hugo Weaving). "The Hobbit" can't reference "The Lord of the Rings" early or often enough, clearly hoping for a sympathetic audience, and these beats do find their targets often enough. There are heartbreaking speeches about sacrifice and being homesick, honor and loyalty are routinely pondered. Plus, there's at least one scene that could leave an audience in tears, and it was nice to see parts of the old gang back together, fighting to save the universe once again.
Still, there's an awful lot of running around, and against visually ridiculous odds. Yes, "The Lord of the Rings" was fantastical, but "The Hobbit" requires a whole new level of disconnect. There are scenes where the gang fights off hundreds of bad guys at a time, only all of them line up in an orderly manner to be picked off bridges and mountain passes. This made sense in "The Two Towers," when a siege was being considered, but it comes off as rather silly in "The Hobbit." Perhaps this is a case of going back to the well too often? Could our affection for "The Lord of the Rings" inform our willingness to enjoy this newer version? Possibly, as the veneration of "The Lord of the Rings" was a transformational event, the final chapter in the "can fantasy ever be accepted by Hollywood?" dilemma. I loved "The Lord of the Rings," and as such "The Hobbit" is difficult to muster gobs of affection for.
Unfortunately, another ding comes in the form of the motivations considered here, and the main good guy leading them. He's insufferable, what with his constant undermining of poor Bilbo! The main thrust of the narrative is the band of Dwarves who want to take their home back from an evil dragon. They lost their homes by being too greedy, because dragons love gold. Well, sure, but this is all at once an over-explanation and not nearly explanation enough. "A ring to rule them all" is somewhat obtuse, but it's symbolically clear, a visual symbol of unchecked power. "Getting our home back from a dragon" isn't exactly a slogan you can rally around. Various bad guys are thrown in front of the good guys, but it all comes off as too simple, too pat. And what do Orcs or Trolls have to do with anything, anyway? Weirdly, this new "Hobbit" film hints at an Orc society that's not too shabby, one in which a short-term condo rental would have to at least be considered. These new (well, prequel) Orcs read, send messages, participate in a meritorious leadership system, and create complex hovels for themselves. The "good guys" invade and chop everyone up. Again, a minor item, but you can't help but think of this as the film slowly moves toward its inevitable conclusion, which of course is no conclusion at all. Three-part films don't have to make one good film, instead preferring to hint at all the good stuff yet to come! But it's impossible to give full credit based upon potential, even if the next two films turn out to be great, which I fervently hope they do.
As far as the technical element goes, it's largely off-putting. 48 frames per second looks sped up, and is definitely disorienting. The special effect gets slightly better as your eyes adjust, but why exactly do the eyes need to adjust in the first place? It's tough to figure why the frame rate envelope needed to be pushed here, especially with all the advances in CGI - which allowed the action and animals to come off as far more realistic than the last time around. "The Hobbit" would have truly been a technical marvel in 24fps, but sadly the 48fps effect doesn't work often enough.
What's all this add up to? Not terribly much. "The Lord of the Rings" franchise is still strong, maintaining a hold on our collective consciousness, but this latest offering prefers to kick the can down the road (instead of exploring new ground). In the end, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is merely one-third of an unrealized story, a carbon copy of something rich, lucid, and authentic.