The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment in Peter Jackson’s newest trilogy set in the fantasy land of Middle Earth, would be more accurately classified as a long-winded journey. A prequel to the Homer-esque epic that is the Lord of the Rings trinity of films, An Unexpected Journey is certainly the weakest link in its gene pool. The irony is that the picture’s principal failing is precisely its attempt to be a sprawling masterwork of cinema similar in scope to its bigger brothers. Adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, the story chronicles a company of 13 dwarves, accompanied by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and, begrudgingly, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), on a quest to reclaim the great dwarf kingdom Erebor from the gold-hoarding dragon Smaug — and takes place 60 years before Frodo Baggins even hears whisper of the Ring of Power. In the 170-minute-long first chapter, the clan of fantastical creatures treks through the grassy fields of the hobbit-settled Shire, convenes a council in elf stronghold Rivendell, evades a bloodthirsty pack of orcs (more than once), and fights its way out of goblin-infested caves. Yet, somehow, its destination — the Lonely Mountain — is but a silhouette on the horizon. Surely Peter Jackson could have been equally as succinct as Tolkien, who managed to tell the entire tale in one short book. Instead, An Unexpected Journey contains unnecessary narrative bulk and, as the first flick in a series that seems arbitrarily drawn-out, feels like an overtly capitalist-minded attempt to profit from the popularity and success of its predecessors.

Length aside, the screenplay — co-written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro — does a good job at juxtaposing the youth-oriented nature of Tolkien’s chronicle, which he originally wrote for his children, with the sinister undertones that bridge the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings storylines. It’s a much goofier, light-hearted tale than the darker, adult-slanted Rings novels, reflected in the film through comedic devices such as dwarvish high jinks and the groveling of an uptight Bilbo, who is not accustomed to life on the road, devoid of the amenities provided in his cushy hobbit hole. The humor, unfortunately, teeters on the edge of overly slapstick at times — Jackson and company try for a few cheap laughs, the loud burping of gluttonous dwarves being one instance — and some parts seem to stress the more adolescent bearing too much, best exemplified by tree-hugging wizard Radagast the Brown, who escapes danger on a sled pulled by “Rhosgobel” rabbits (an element that’s not present in the book). The screenplay is able to balance the farce with allusion to a malicious dark magic that’s beginning to corrupt the forest — a foreshadowing of Sauron’s reemergence in the Rings triad, which provides a greater degree of maturity to the film and is sure to pique the interest of Rings fans.

This time around, Middle Earth is a world rife with computer-generated imagery (CGI), which gives the movie more of a fairy tale quality. Indeed, it’s a highly digitized spectacle, and the scale of the photography can be as awe-inspiring as the majestic panoramas of New Zealand, from where most of the footage of snow-capped mountains and vast plains is derived. While the Lord of the Rings trilogy of course depends on strokes of digital mastery to tell Frodo’s tale, it also used some stellar, Oscar-winning makeup and costume design to give goblins and orcs a tinge of believability. An Unexpected Journey falls short of that. Several action sequences have a cartoonish, video game appearance to them, and antagonists such as the Pale Orc are a lot less menacing through computer generation than they could have been otherwise.

More than any other aspect of the film, Jackson’s decision to make it available in both a standard and high frame rate format — 48 frames per second as opposed to the typical 24 for cinema — is perhaps the most intriguing. Because the faster frame rate projects double the amount of graphical data on the screen, motion blur is minimized and the effect is a sharper, more realistic image — no small benefit to a visually captivating and CGI-heavy production such as this one. Jackson himself admits, however, that it can take a while to get accustomed to the new display, and audiences will be sure to have an adventure of their own in this regard. It’s a particularly jarring experience, not unlike watching a high-definition television for the first time, that makes characters’ actions appear faster than normal and camera movements jerky, potentially distracting from the storytelling in the first several minutes of the movie as viewers’ eyes adjust to the pictorial onslaught. In the absence of a grainier look, landscapes somehow manage to be more striking and the CGI attains a higher degree of verisimilitude; but whether high frame rate technology is the future of motion pictures, hailed as such by some like film director James Cameron (big surprise), remains to be seen. It’s certain to be, at least in the short term, less suited to plot or character-driven movies than visually based ones, and is a revolutionary filmmaking experiment that’s certainly worth giving a try before writing it off.

For Lord of the Rings junkies (such as myself), the novelty of seeing Middle Earth on the big screen again is reason enough to take a trip to the theater. It’d be a lie to say that immersion in the magical land after an absence of nine years didn’t inspire a rush of nostalgia. Ian Holm as an older, retrospective Bilbo Baggins (the flick’s narrative centers around his flashback of the expedition to the Lonely Mountain) and Elijah Wood (as his nephew Frodo) make brief appearances at the beginning of the film, and plant viewers firmly in the Rings realm; McKellen, Cate Blanchett as omniscient elf maiden Galadriel, Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman, Hugo Weaving as elf lord Elrond, and Andy Serkis, in his always-impressive CGI animation and voice-over performance of the Ring-coveting Gollum, only embed us further.

And it’d be tough to ask for a better theatrical performance from cast members, both new and old. Martin Freeman as the protagonist, a 60-years-younger Bilbo Baggins, much less the wizened world traveler and practiced adventurer he is in the Rings trilogy, is a pleasure to watch in his encapsulation of the skeptical, homebody hobbit. The scene in which Bilbo and Gollum square off in a high-stakes contest of riddles is probably the movie’s crowning achievement, one which serves to highlight Freeman’s and Serkis’ extraordinary talents as well as Gollum’s eerie double personality and all-consuming infatuation with his “precious,” and acts as the set piece for the sequels through the introduction of a deceivingly innocent-looking ring with unrivaled power. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a dwarf prince who leads the company on their mission to reclaim Erebor, is a legendary warrior whose honor, fierceness in battle, and inextinguishable drive to reclaim his homeland make him a notable addition to the ranks of the Middle Earth crew. His serious demeanor and jabs at Bilbo’s at-times-doubtful worth provide a stark contrast to the dull-witted antics of his kin, and he’s really the only dwarf the audience comes to know somewhat intimately –a gap that’s hopefully closed over the course of the next two pictures. McKellen is once again spot-on as Gandalf, and his consistently endearing performances in the role are almost as guaranteed as the Ring’s ultimate destruction in the volcanic Mount Doom. Throw in a booming score courtesy of Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore and the seedlings of storylines that have definite promise of blossoming in the following chapters, and we have a solid journey that makes for an overall pleasant experience. That is, as long as you have plenty of time to kill.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

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