The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, and Andy Serkis

There's something that's so right about visiting Middle Earth in December.  Since The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out a decade ago, I have made it an annual ritual to revisit director Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy literature during the holiday season.  Well, this ritual is going to have to be modified this year because Jackson has decided to bring one more Tolkien work to life with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  This Christmas, it's time to go there and back again with our dear friend Mr. Bilbo Baggins.

It's Bilbo Baggins's (Ian Holms - older) 111th birthday, and he's writing a story to share with his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood).  Sixty years ago, Bilbo is (Martin Freeman - younger) hired by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a company of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) for an adventure.  He's been hired to help the dwarves reclaim their homeland on the Lonely Mountain, the kingdom of Eleborn that was taken by the vicious dragon Smaug years ago.  While Thorin and the dwarves doubt this little hobbit and what he can offer, Gandalf has faith that he can be what this company needs for he gives Gandalf courage.

It is truly something special to be back in Middle Earth!  I have missed the world of elves, dwarves, and hobbits.  There's nothing quite like Peter Jackson's vision of the Tolkien world.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fitting installment into Jackson's series and comes at just the right time in the holiday season.  Jackson reintroduces us to all the characters we know and love and some of the most beautiful parts of Middle Earth that we discovered on our last journey.  At the same time, we get a whole new cast of characters and get to explore new kingdoms and regions of Middle Earth.  All throughout, we continue to explore the underpinnings of Tolkien’s world and get hints of the storm brewing that will sweep over the land with a second darkness.

Any discussion of The Hobbit has to begin with the new resolution used in the making of the film — a frame rate of 48 frames per second.  Admittedly, the resolution takes some adjustment as it's something we've never seen on the big screen beforehand.  Initially, it will seem too realistic.  As time goes on, the incredibly clear resolution will make you feel like you're really in Middle Earth.  Five to ten minutes is enough time to make this adjustment.  Twice the industry standard, this resolution ensures that we have a visual feast with all the spectacular sights that Peter Jackson delivers throughout the movie.  Like James Cameron's Avatar several years ago, this is a technological experience you can't miss.  The Hobbit might just change the way we view movies.

I have to say that Middle Earth is more beautiful than ever in The Hobbit.  From Rivendell to the Misty Mountains, Jackson uses the gorgeous landscapes of New Zealand to his advantage.  The new resolution only makes these sights more vivid and stunning.  What seems to be equally important in making Middle Earth feel as grand as ever is the rich score from composer Howard Shore.  Like in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shore's score is Jackson's tag team partner in introducing brand new worlds and reintroducing the beloved ones with which we're already familiar.

The Hobbit is an unexpectedly funny journey.  I completely understand that this children's book is lighter fare than The Lord of the Rings given that Middle Earth is not plagued by the looming doom of Sauron at this point in history.  However, I never expected to laugh to the extent that I would shed any tears in The Hobbit.  All I will say is that Gollum took me to some hilarious places I never expected to go in this flick with his crazy game of riddles.  There was plenty of humor in Jackson's previous films, but nothing extremely funny.  The comedy is a surprise strength of the film.

The cast does an excellent job.  As Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman delivers one lovable hobbit.  He brings a vibrant, witty personality to the character of Bilbo.  Freeman really gives us a hobbit with all the right charms.  He's the perfect Baggins.  While the 48 frames per second resolution may not be so kind to him now that he's in his 70s, Sir Ian McKellen steps back into the role of Gandalf in style.  With plenty of sarcasm and an always grandfatherly presence, McKellen brings quite a bit of humor to the film and lots of wizardry.  As Thorin Oakenshield, Richard Armitage steps into his most prominent role to date on the big screen.  He gives us a bold, fierce dwarf leader and takes command of the screen whenever he's on camera.

While the principal cast members deliver some strong performances, one character in a minor role might just outshine them.  As Gollum, motion capture actor Andy Serkis is as treacherous as ever.  This more playful Gollum is also pretty hilarious.  With his comical game of riddles and curious appetite for hobbit flesh, Serkis steals the show.  What's equally impressive is the frantic and tragic character Serkis portrays once he loses the Ring of Power.  There’s a really touching, emotional side to his character that comes out in his final moments on screen.  All in all, Serkis puts on one hell of a performance in The Hobbit.

My only problem with The Hobbit isn't something that is the result of poor filmmaking or bad acting.  It's the reality that Jackson and Warner Bros. decided to split the book (and additional content from Tolkien's appendix in The Return of the King) into three movies.  Because of this, the movie feels incomplete.  It's not a story or journey that stands on its own.  It simply cannot do so.  This incompleteness isn't something that necessarily will irk you during the film.  It's hard not to enjoy Middle Earth.  That being said, it is something that will leave you slightly dissatisfied at the end.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a thoroughly entertaining film that takes us back to Middle Earth.  If not for this lingering feeling of incompleteness, the movie would get a sober rating because director Peter Jackson is at the top of his game.  There's plenty of action, lots of laughs, and several amazing new worlds.  With the natural beauty of New Zealand, an awesome cast, and an incredibly talented composer all at his disposal, Jackson makes this trip back to Middle Earth completely worth it.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have a few wine coolers during this merry gathering of dwarves and Shire folk.