The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a welcome return to Middle Earth -- to halflings, wizards, dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins -- but it is not a return to the overall mood and themes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
If you grew up devouring J.R.R. Tolkien's works as a kid -- if The Hobbit was your entry point to Middle Earth way back when -- this should come as no surprise. I suspect it may be disappointing to some that these films deal less with high-end concepts like the temptation of power and the personal destruction it can bring, but to those folks I would ask, well, what were you expecting?
Director Peter Jackson did an admirable job of adapting The Lord of the Rings for the silver screen -- hitting most of the notes hardcore Tolkien fans wanted to hear while still appealing to more casual fans -- and a third of the way into his The Hobbit trilogy, he seems to have done the same thing with Tolkien's other most famous work. Yes, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is far less serious than any of Jackson's other films set in New Zealand/Middle Earth. To me, at least, that's exactly as it should be. The Hobbit is much less serious a novel, which is perfectly fine -- even welcome after the lengthy, more stern allegory presented in The Lord of the Rings. In fact, this is about as close as a PG-13 movie can get to being purely for kids -- a tone that, again, shouldn't come as a surprise if you have the context of the books.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is set 60 years prior to The Lord of the Rings, and it tells the story of how Frodo Baggins' uncle Bilbo (Martin Freeman) originally came by the One Ring that featured so prominently in the (chronologically) subsequent epic. In Tolkien's The Hobbit, his procurement of the One Ring is semi-incidental to the plot. I don't mean to play down the importance of it (just so the fanboys and fangirls know), but I do mean to say that it is Bilbo's reluctant decision to head off on a quest with 13 dwarves that is far more central to the proceedings. Ironically, Bilbo's battle of wits with Gollum (Andy Serkis) has outsized importance here, almost certainly because Jackson is transforming the book into three feature-length films and the Bilbo-Gollum showdown happens to be positioned squarely in the midst of the climax of the film trilogy's first part.
The quest which Bilbo tethers himself too is led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the grandson of a dwarf king, who is leading his brood to the Lonely Mountain in hopes of reclaiming their ancestral home of Erebor and the massive treasure being horded there by the dragon Smaug. It is the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) who brings Bilbo and the 13 dwarves together and who repeatedly extricates them from trouble, whether it comes at the hands of cave trolls, a Goblin King or the fearsome Orc warrior Azog (Manu Bennett) and his wargs.
The travels of Bilbo and company are quite entertaining, if not exactly as exhilarating as what is on offer in The Lord of the Rings. Unexpected Journey is much funnier than any of the three Rings movies by a stretch. You might think it's the dwarves who provide that lightness, but to me the biggest contrast between Journey and Rings comes when you compare Freeman's depiction of Bilbo and Elijah Wood's turn as Frodo. Throw in a more peppy, vigorous Gollum -- seriously, Serkis is better than he ever was in The Lord of the Rings and the riddle-off between he and Freeman is easily the highlight of the movie -- and it's easy to see why there's so much more humor in Journey than there ever was in Jackson's other Middle Earth trilogy.
Where Journey falters relative to its predecessors is in its pedantic beginning and meandering conclusion. Jackson wastes some 15 minutes linking The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, going so far as to drag out Wood and Ian Holm, the actor who played Bilbo in Rings, to make it perfectly clear that old Bilbo is imparting this story to the Frodo a couple decades after the former's grand adventure. I can't see why this was necessary at all, considering The Lord of the Rings pulled in almost $3 billion worldwide; there might be a few nine-year-olds who were too young to see The Two Towers when it first came out, but my guess is they'll be able to find the DVD or Blu-Ray lying around somewhere and fill in the gaps.
The ending, to put it most simply, echoes the problem with the conclusion to The Return of the King. If you recall watching that film in the theaters, you might remember being convinced multiple times that it was finally over before the credits actually rolled. Expect the same sensation in Journey.
Even with those shortcomings, Jackson has delivered a fine opening salvo in his new trilogy and a worthy quasi-prequel to the three movies that, collectively, are sure to go down as his masterpiece. There is a high school reunion-type feel in some places (hey, it's Frodo, remember that class we had with him in third period?), but mostly that sense is cast aside by the introduction of Freeman's Bilbo, the invigoration of Serkis' Gollum (both with regard to his character and the improved motion-capture technology that makes his performance possible) and with the steady greatness of McKellen's wise, comforting Gandalf.
This trio is enough to make The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey unexpectedly pleasant. I remain suspicious that Jackson will be able to keep this up for the duration of three films, particularly without Gollum to inject life in to the plot of the next two films as they begin to lag, but a full post-mortem of the trilogy will have to wait until we've seen all of it. So far? So good.