by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
Scene from The Hobbit
Scene from The Hobbit
(c) WB

Merely nine years after bringing us his brilliant adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Peter Jackson returns to Middle-Earth to tackle Tolkien’s prequel novel, “The Hobbit,” with another trilogy of films. There are those that question whether splitting up such a short novel into three films is a wise idea, but given his track record with this kind of material, it seems best to give Jackson the benefit of the doubt. Besides, how bad could it be to have three epic adventures instead of just two?

Part one of the trilogy, subtitled “An Unexpected Journey,” tells the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a Hobbit of the Shire, who one day suddenly receives a visit from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). After a perplexing conversation, Bilbo goes about his usual business when sometime later, he begins receiving visits from multiple dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Bilbo eventually learns that Gandalf has chosen him to be a member of their party, whose purpose is to reclaim the dwarves’ homeland, which has been taken over by the evil dragon Smaug.

After quite a bit of reluctance, Bilbo decides to join in the adventure, despite not having experience in doing anything like it before. Their journey is fraught with dangers, including orcs, goblins, wargs, stone giants, and trolls. However, the dwarves are steadfast in their determination to reclaim their home under the Lonely Mountain, never allowing anything to stand in their way, not even an old enemy of Thorin’s who comes looking for revenge years after they met in battle.

First off, I have to say that it was great to see Jackson return for more Tolkien material. If anyone was going to be able to do justice to this classic book, it would be Jackson and his incredible crew. Having just reread the book a couple of months ago, I also have to say that they’re doing a great job at adapting it thus far. Like with any adaptation, things have to be changed a bit in order to make them work cinematically, but for the most part, the events from the book are covered very well.

However, this adaptation also diverts from the book in some interesting ways, including subplots that weren’t originally present. For instance, there’s the inclusion of a character known as the Pale Orc, Thorin’s old enemy from a battle long ago. We also get to meet Radagast the Brown, a wizard who is only mentioned in the novel. The addition of these characters allows for a bit of surprise for those who are familiar with the book, but not familiar with the extra material that the screenwriters borrowed from other Tolkien sources.

That being said, these subplots didn’t exactly feel necessary, at least not for this film. The inclusion of the Pale Orc made it seem as though the filmmakers felt that our heroes weren’t put in enough danger with the multitudes of creatures already trying to stop them. As for Radagast, he only seemed to be included to warn Gandalf about an upcoming danger known as the Necromancer, another character who is only mentioned in the book. These weren’t bad inclusions, it’s just that they probably could have stood to be cut in order to help the pacing a bit.

Speaking of the pacing, there were also some odd choices made in regards to it. For instance, a scene in Rivendell, the home of the elves, that has Gandalf discussing the Necromancer among other things, feels like it brings the movie to a halt for a good 15 minutes before starting back up again. Another instance of this involves our heroes coming into contact with stone giants, a section that lasts for only a page or two in the novel, but felt like it was stretched out quite a bit for the film. Luckily, these are only minor complaints for a film that is great otherwise.

As with “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a beautiful film. Shot in New Zealand once again, the film features amazing landscapes and top-notch CGI used to create several stunning locations, including the dwarves’ kingdom of Erebor and the goblins’ dwelling under the Misty Mountains, as well as multiple amazingly-detailed creatures that our heroes encounter on their quest.

All of the hard work that went into creating the look of the film makes one wonder why someone who’s as great a filmmaker as Jackson would make the major mistake of shooting it in 3-D. As usual, the 3-D adds nothing, is not really noticeable, and only serves to make the picture darker, which is a very strange choice for a film that has many events taking place at night and in dark tunnels. This is one that I can’t wait to see in 2-D in order to see just how great it looks when shown in its proper format.

Despite a few minor stumbles, this trilogy is off to a great start. It’s always possible that those subplots that seem superfluous now could be developed quite well later on. They do have two more films to fill up after all. The thing is, it’s very hard to judge the first part of a trilogy. Certain things won’t fall into place until all three films are revealed, allowing the bigger picture to be seen.

When I saw “The Fellowship of the Ring” the first time, I thought it was great, but didn’t deem it a masterpiece until I had seen the other two films. The very same thing could happen here. Whether that turns out to be the case or not, I very much look forward to continuing the journey next year. 3.5/4 stars.