When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is good, it’s really good. Throughout Peter Jackson‘s first film in the Hobbit trilogy, his camera sweeps through an epic battle, and Howard Shore’s score crescendos through the speakers as thirteen dwarves, one wizard and a hobbit fight for their lives. That’s what most audiences are paying to see, and the film provides that on a grand scale, again and again.

“Again and again” is also the film’s biggest issue. On a consistent basis, it’s almost as if Jackson forgets he has two more films to release and is forced to pump the brakes. Tangents pop out of nowhere, dialogue scenes are stretched into infinity, and a familiar structure of capture followed by rousing escape, is consistently repeated. Much of the film feels like it’s purposely attempting to stall the dwarves’ quest from progressing.

What we’re left with is a huge, beautiful piece of entertainment, the lows of which are slightly outweighed by its adrenaline pumping highs. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey works, but feels bloated, derived from the fact that it’s based on a child’s book, only stuffed and stretched beyond the bounds of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s original narrative.  Still, its flaws and fun work hand in hand to provide a suitably rousing first act to the Hobbit trilogy.

At its core, The Hobbit is simple: a team of dwarves travels across Middle Earth to reclaim a treasure that’s rightfully theirs, accompanied by an unlikely companion in hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). From the first frames of An Unexpected Journey, you can sense that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro are determined to make the film into more than a telling of that straightforward story. Since the dwarves are the main characters, we’re quickly regaled with their epic backstory, similar to the telling of the history of the ring in The Fellowship of the Ring. We’ll keep coming back to this along the way too, which is one of the film’s many deviations from the book.

Once the background is explained and the characters’ journey is painstakingly set up, the film falls into a very rigid structure. They walk a bit; something bad transpires; there’s a miraculous, action packed solution; and the journey continues. Since Tolkien wrote The Hobbit primarily as a children’s book, this simple narrative is understandable. And while we rarely feel like there’s anything at risk during the action, as it’s so early in the story, each of the set pieces are visually impressive and exciting. Jackson and his crew have staged some goosebump-inducing action, combining traditional battles with environmental interactions. Couple those elements with Shore’s memorable score and these scenes become a thing of wonder.

But then Jackson does it again. And again. And it’s still exciting, just decreasingly so. Excepting the entertainment value for the audience, the only real purpose of this action is to cement the fellowship of this group, especially the initially unwelcome inclusion of Bilbo. From the outset, Bilbo’s status is well-established as an unwanted outsider, and over the course of the movie, his acceptance by the group is a primary arc. Unfortunately, it’s treated with the more importance than the journey itself and 90 minutes into 160 minute movie, it doesn’t feel like the dwarves have gone anywhere.

The feeling of stasis might also be a result of the plentiful collection of primary characters. Out of the thirteen dwarves, maybe four are given real personalities in this initial film. The one that stands above the rest is, appropriately, the leader, Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage. Similar to Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings, Armitage is a long-time character actor who achieves leading man status with this role. In fact, his character is so dynamic and awesome, Jackson and crew have created a totally unique foe for him to battle throughout the movie.

While Armitage’s performance is the standout, and everyone else does their jobs well, Freeman’s turn as Bilbo is particularly wonderful. You’ll see Bilbo’s personal growth throughout the film, even if he doesn’t always have a lot to do. The way Freeman emulates the performance of the older Bilbo, Ian Holm, is one of the innumerable nods to the original trilogy fans will certainly enjoy. The Gollum scenes in particular are a showcase for Freeman, along with co-star and second unit director Andy Serkis, and a slew of technological advances.

One of the biggest advancements Jackson chose to embrace with The Hobbit was shooting at 48 frames per second, now referred to as High Frame Rate (HFR). My screening employed this new technology and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. At times, the film looks immaculate. Regular landscapes and normal shots with static digital effects look so beautiful, it’s almost as if you could press pause and step through the screen. However, when there are a lot of effects on screen, or they move quickly (as when animals are present, for example) they look overly digital and obviously inserted. Fortunately, even with this problem, the look of the film never took me out of the story. I left feeling that HFR is a technology with a promising future, but it’s not quite there yet.

Overall The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a lot of fun. Fans of Jackson, Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings films will enjoy it. However, it’s long and uneven, which keeps it from reaching the heights of Jackson’s first three Middle-Earth films. It’s obvious why and how the director added what he did, but whether or not it’ll all work out is probably a question we can’t answer for two more years.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens December 14 in 2D, 3D, IMAX 3D and HFR 3D.

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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