The opening entry in Peter Jackson's "prequel trilogy," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a painful review to write. After achieving the impossible with the original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, fans of the director (myself included) felt Jackson could do no wrong. While not as amazing, his remake of "King Kong" was thoroughly pleasing, but gave early warning signs that the filmmaker had become overindulgent in terms of pacing. Then "The Lovely Bones" happened and apart from being visually pleasing, doubts regarding Jackson's ability had to be addressed. Still, with him initially attached to what was to be a Guillermo del Toro helmed duo of "The Hobbit" films, Tolkien fans felt the project was in safe hands, and some even more so when del Toro left over delays and Jackson took over.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is very much a film in the look and feel of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but now with the problems formerly isolated to "King Kong" and "The Lovely Bones." Most controversial, even before the film begins is the recent shift to make the duo of films into a trilogy, stretching a solitary book, one-third the size (or possibly a bit less) of "The Lord of the Rings" into a series of films almost equal in length. It pains me to say it, but as glorious as the journey into Middle Earth was in "The Lord of the Rings," the journey back lacks most of the magic. Two key factors hold "An Unexpected Journey" back from its aspirations of greatness: pacing and tone, and in at least one case, the blame is thoroughly on Jackson's shoulders, who has learned nothing from the heavy complaints surrounding "King Kong'" bloated, first act.
Over the course of the nearly three-hour saga, Jackson lets scenes trail on far too long, beginning with not just the expository dinner sequence, but the film's first scene, a prologue featuring older Bilbo (Ian Holm) setting up necessary back-story, before an awkward and pointless cameo from Elijah Wood as Frodo tries to unnecessarily tie the film to "The Fellowship of the Ring." The dinner sequence is initially amusing but becomes repetitious and although the humorous nature is straight from the books (which is admittedly lighter-hearted than other Middle Earth lore), it serves no purpose but to artificially pad the time. The most egregious of such time padding is the inclusion of Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, a character mentioned in the source material, who is forcefully crammed into the story in a sloppy sequence which serves no other purpose but to put him in contact with our group of heroes; the end result allows Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to later let the White Council know of a growing threat. In short, Radagast could have served his fan-service purpose by merely encountering Thorin and Company, delivering his evidence to Gandalf and exiting just as quickly.
It's far from all bad (and to be honest, nothing in "An Unexpected Journey" is truly bad, just mediocre and disappointing) with the performances by Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellan crackling with energy. Freeman is a brilliant casting choice and anytime the film actually centers on him, he comes alive and captures the attention of the audience. It goes without saying McKellan is absolutely magnificent, giving viewers a sense of comfort as the familiar wizard who departed far too soon in "Fellowship of the Ring." McKellan gets to be playful in a way that would have been out of character for his return as Gandalf the White in the subsequent films. The remaining cast, when given something to do shines as well, but another critical problem is out of the company of dwarves Bilbo joins up with, four at most have roles beyond being living set decoration.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" could never be fairly called bad; it's a fine piece of filmmaking and one of the better fantasy films since the release of "Return of the King," but it has big shoes to fill not only with its direct connection to the work of Tolkien but director Jackson back at the helm with original cast returning where appropriate. The film struggles with finding a balance between humor and seriousness, until the third act where the humor actually almost entirely vanishes. The tone of the remaining two films in this prequel trilogy will likely not face these problems, but the core flaw in the film, time padding, could very well be the thread that unravels this entire new trilogy from approaching the quality of its predecessors. If it weren't for the grand scale, I'd recommend waiting to see this at home, but Jackson and his crew have offered a beautiful film to behold, even if a number of early action sequences are an incomprehensible blur of motion; Tolkien fans are either going to love it or feel ambivalent, but even then, if the epic scope of the film isn't enough to pique interest, I'll be quite honest in saying the "Riddles in the Dark" sequence with Gollum and the concurrently occurring goblin mountain sequence (which feels like its one of the few remaining elements of Guillermo del Toro's early production work) are enough to make the money spent on the ticket feel justified. Just be sure to see it in standard 2D the added depth of the 3D doesn't justify a huge markup. Recommended.