Unexpected Journey, unsurprising movie

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“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

So begins one of the great works of high fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” This book was first published in 1937 and has never gone out of print. Its three-volume sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” released in 1954, was made into a film trilogy that won 17 Oscars, made $3 billion in theaters and brought fantasy geekdom to the masses.

After years of whispers and rumors, “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson is adapting “The Hobbit” as a film trilogy, weaving other parts of Tolkien’s massive Middle Earth into the tale. Whether parts two and three hold up to the multi-Oscar legacy is yet to be seen, but the first serving is solid.

Part one is subtitled “An Unexpected Journey,” but what isn’t to be expected here? Jackson’s Middle Earth is beautiful and compelling, as is the script. Martin Freeman’s signature bewildered everyman act fits the stodgy and domestic Bilbo Baggins to a “T” as a band of dwarves invade his home and empty his pantry. Gandalf the Grey, aka Gandalf Stormcrow, aka the Wandering Wizard, aka Mithrandir, aka he-who-has-more-names-than-Prince, takes turns as the wise mentor and the scared old man once more, performed marvelously by Sir Ian McKellan.

What is a bit unexpected is the tone the film takes. While there are battles aplenty, this movie is based on what was, at its core, a children’s book, and dark as things get for the cast, it does not forget that. The tone is simply more upbeat than the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

The core plot is still fairly straightforward, though Gandalf is always off looking into little things – previously relegated to the appendices of “The Return of the King” – which make the events of “The Hobbit” lead smoothly into the events of “The Lord of the Rings.”

Now for the downsides. Most of the dwarves are indistinct; it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. It would take a master director to neatly introduce and make distinct 13 brand new characters with half the sweeping, cinematic battle scenes. And when the dwarves are on screen, the shining performances – McKellan and Freeman – don’t get to shine with the intensity they do sans dwarves.

And oh goodness, do the dwarves get obnoxious. Half the time, their characterizations are caught (mostly indistinctly) between Viking loutishness and childish shenanigans. Morbid dwarf cracks jokes about bones, fat dwarf forgets his anxiety when the elf offers a meal, veteran dwarf tells old war stories, and youthful dwarves get Bilbo in trouble with trolls.

The next film needs either a tighter focus on lead talent or a lot of dwarf character development, and I’m inclined to prefer the former – Bilbo, Gandalf, and lead dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) are the main characters and deserve the attention.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” did not maintain the quality of “The Lord of the Rings” films. The pacing is better in some places than others, not all of the characters get developed, the jokes are hit-or-miss, and that scene with the rabbit-pulled sled is about half of a Jar-Jar Binks away from Shia LaBeouf swinging with monkeys in the fourth Indiana Jones movie – and from the seventh Doctor Who, to boot.

However, it is a gorgeous movie with amazing shots of New Zealand, a fantastic lead actor who has slipped into his character like a custom-molded furry prosthetic foot, Andy Serkis playing Gollum again, and a few utterly marvelous sequences.

That this movie feels more solid than stunning in the wake of epic films like The Hunger Games and whatnot is not a black mark on director Jackson’s record as much as a testament to what the Lord of the Rings trilogy did to movie expectations a decade ago.

Parts two and three are scheduled for release in winter 2013 and summer 2014, respectively. In the mean time, pick up the book; unlike “The Lord of the Rings” novels, there aren’t page-and-a-half elvish poems, and it’s a good read for anyone who can tackle it. Besides, every geek knows the book is always better than the movie.