At the Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

So Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth. Will it be a triumphant reunion or will it be “The Phantom Menace?”

A little of Column A, a little of Column B. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has the glorious spectacle, stunning special effects, charming characters, creepy monsters and many scenes of people walking single file through majestic vistas that you’d expect from the man who brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy to life. It’s also too long, too talky, too familiar and drags at times — also what you’d expect from a Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation.

tumblr_mdncxd3xk71rlppd4o1_1280For the Tolkien-impaired, “The Hobbit” is the story that precedes “The Lord of the Rings.” It tells the tale of how a young Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is roped into going on an adventure with a band of dwarves and in the process comes into possession of a mysterious ring of power.

The movie opens with Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) providing the necessary background for the tale to come. A long time ago in Middle Earth there was a majestic kingdom of Dwarves. One day a dragon coveted the king’s gold and moved into castle — because it’s hard to tell a dragon ‘no.’ The dwarves were scattered to the wind and now have no homeland.

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), grandson of the former king, has agreed to lead a dozen fellow dwarves (all named, but I couldn’t name them), one hobbit (Bilbo) and a wizard (Gandalf, once again played by Ian McKellen) on a quest to reclaim the castle and treasure from the dragon Smaug.

“An Unexpected Journey” is the first of three films Jackson plans on making out of one book — “The Hobbit.” One may well wonder why it’s taking three movies to tell this one story when he only needed one film to cover each of the books in the LOTR trilogy. The answer, at least based on this first installment, seems to be “filler.”

The movie opens with a long prologue that seems to exist mainly as an excuse to bring back Frodo (Elijah Wood) for a cameo. This is followed by an equally drawn out scene as the dwarves gather and trash Bilbo’s place while deciding on a course of action.

When the story finally does get moving it goes at a decent pace. This first film is similar in many respects to the first film in the LOTR saga — get the band together, have a few adventures, meet people, then find a stopping place after almost three hours. There’s a lot of talk and a lot of setup here but also a fair amount of action.

The actors, the production standards, the sets and special effects are all the same high quality you expect from the franchise. Nobody delivers people walking single file through gorgeous scenery like Peter Jackson.

The new cast is fine but not as engaging as in the original. The monsters are suitably disturbing. A lot of it will be familiar but there are some interesting new twists — a battle between giant rock trolls is stunning.

The film is available in 3D and was shot at 48 frames per second (the standard rate is 24 frames per second; this is reportedly the first major film to be projected at the higher frame speed). As a result, there have been incidents of motion sickness and nausea at early screenings. Needless to say, this made me apprehensive because it’s no secret that I’m highly susceptible to shaky-cam and other camera tricks. I spent most of “Cloverfield” with my eyes closed.

So I’m pleased to report that at no time did I feel ill while watching “The Hobbit.” I can’t make that promise for everyone but if it didn’t bother me then hopefully it won’t bother any other moviegoers with weak constitutions.

“An Unexpected Journey” has its failings but overall it’s a fun, visually spectacular, return to Middle Earth. If it’s like the LOTR series it should pick up steam in future installments.

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