When Peter Jackson, fantasy-drama visual extraordinaire, tackled J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy more than a decade ago, he chose to adapt each book into a stand-alone film. With The Hobbit, Tolkien's precursor to the Rings series, Jackson—along with his army of co-writers, including once-director Guillermo del Toro—has broadened his scope, choosing to adapt a single, relatively trim book into a trifecta of triple-hour 3-D blockbusters. The trilogy's first installment, An Unexpected Journey, lives up to the visual splendor of the original Rings films, laced with rich humor and a sweetly innate innocence. But unlike those earlier epics, Journey also feels bloated and a tad strained—a relatively simple story padded with dramatic filler and stretched to its narrative breaking point.
Basically, it's too long. Clocking in at just under three hours, An Unexpected Journey runs out of gas long before the end, right around the 900th sword fight and boy-they-barely-squeaked-their-way-outta-that-one! action sequence. But there's still plenty to love in this witty and visually jaw-dropping tale, particularly when Jackson and company avoid nail-biter fireworks in favor of characters and intimacy.
The early exposition drags a bit, as the quiet country life of the titular Bilbo Baggins (played with a warm, lived-in spirit by the fantastic Martin Freeman) is disrupted by conniving wizard Gandalf the Grey (the reliably wizard-like Ian McKellen), leading to a long dinner scene with 13 hairy, rowdy dwarves. This ramshackle crew—led by the fallen king Thorin—are on a quest to redeem their Lonely Mountain homeland and its bounty of gold from an evil dragon Smaug. Gandalf wants Bilbo to join as an expert burglar—even though the hobbit's never stolen anything in his life and certainly never been on an adventure. Gandalf appreciates his optimism and his boyish wonder. So he reluctantly joins, setting off for, yes, an unexpected journey. It takes around 45 minutes for that set-up.
Once the actual journey begins, the film perks up, especially during a hilarious encounter with a trio of starved trolls and a sprightly visit from the peculiar, animal-devoted wizard Radagast the Brown. It's during these moments that the film distinguishes itself from the Rings trilogy, offering a more wide-eyed, child-like viewpoint that explores Tolkien's universe in a way that feels fresh and inventive. The plot is never hard to follow, but the proceedings feel unnecessarily disjointed as Jackson shoehorns villain upon villain (creepy, bloodthirsty orcs, the mysterious spirit/dead-conjurer the Necromancer) into the fold. For a trilogy that will eventually reach nine hours total, this barrage of evildoers feels especially cluttered.
An Unexpected Journey—set 60 years before The Fellowship of the Ring—excels when it gives the actors space to interact with each other, emphasizing the spirited humor of the dialogue (both Freeman and McKellen get a number of sizzling one-liners) and the wondrous visual beauty of this digital world Jackson has created. Of particular note is a lengthy stretch set in the peaceful land of Rivendell—Andrew Lesnie's cinematography is staggering, with hills and rivers and clouds blending into moody abstract webs of color and texture. If you were to pause the frame in any of these scenes, you'd be left with a gorgeous painting. (I can't speak for the controversial 3-D treatment—I caught the very pleasing standard version, thank you very much.) Underscoring these visual tapestries is Howard Shore's subtly brilliant score, which moves from eerie choral ambiance to intense orchestrations.
The Necromancer, the mysterious glowing map, Thorin's long-gestating feud with armless orc chieftain Azog—it's clear midway through that Jackson can't resolve all of these threads in three hours. The resolution, then (involving a cliffside, tree-hanging battle and giant eagles) feels like a massive anticlimax. But again, it's a blast getting lost in the film's many small dramatic beats, like Gandalf's secret connection with royal elf Galadriel (a stunning Cate Blanchett) and an extended battle of wits and riddles between Bilbo and Gollum (a twisted Andy Serkis), the split-personality, river-dwelling creature who stole several scenes in the Rings trilogy.
Given the positively daunting precedent Jackson established with The Lord of the Rings, it would have been tough for An Unexpected Journey not to disappoint. It has—but only by his own standards. Nonetheless, The Hobbit's charms are impossible to resist; in terms of fantasy blockbusters, Jackson's halfling epic is still as good as it gets.