THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Premise: Timid and reluctant hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is recruited by wizard Gandalf to join a ragtag group of dwarves on an adventure to reclaim a stolen mountain from an evil dragon named Smaug.
Behind-the-Scenes: Like Skyfall, The Hobbit is another project delayed for years thanks to MGM's bankruptcy. Guillermo del Toro was originally going to direct (and even co-wrote the screenplay), but dropped out after so many years of waiting. Peter Jackson, who previously won Oscar gold for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, took over. This is the first wide release to utilize the high frame rate technology: 48 frames per second, rather than the normal 24.
The Good: This first installment of The Hobbit is a welcome return to Middle Earth, and a worthy companion to LOTR, even if it never quite scales the heights of those films. Jackson still knows how to deliver spectacle like nobody else. There is a fluid, restless quality to his camerawork, and he proves yet again why he's the perfect director for this material. Freeman (of the BBC Office and Sherlock) makes a wonderful Bilbo, and shows off some crack comedic timing. The production design is excellent, and some of the real locations in New Zealand are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The visual effects have progressed nicely since 2003's Return of the King. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, and the classic riddle sequence between Gollum and Bilbo is as good here as it was in Tolkien's book. In fact, it's the best scene in the movie. He may only take up 15 minutes of screen time, but Serkis as Gollum never fails to make an indelible impression.
The Bad: At nearly 3 hours running time, An Unexpected Journey is severely bloated and self-indulgent. Jackson has final cut, and has apparently included every piece of footage shot. Fans of the Extended Editions of LOTR won't have too much room to complain, and I never found the movie boring, but I'm certain that it would have been better off with about 30 minutes removed. I also still have doubts about making The Hobbit (one book) into three, 3-hour plus movies. Seems like overkill. How much hairy hobbit feet can audiences take? Too many dwarf characters, and, though there's a game attempt to distinguish them, it's not entirely successful on that front. Avoid the High Frame Rate 3D showings, unless you're dying of curiosity to see what it looks like. I caught a few minutes with the 48fps, and - how to put this delicately - it sucks. Looks like a televised video game with certain movements on fast forward.
Should You See It?: Yes. It's much better than the pre-release buzz suggests. If you enjoyed any of the other LOTR movies, you'll like this first Hobbit. See you again for Part 2 in a year.
Rating: ***1/2 out of 5 stars.