December 20, 2012

'Hobbit' offers rich, exciting adventure


---- — Yes, it’s clear that no one in Hollywood is able to say “no” to Peter Jackson. “The Hobbit” may be a cherished childhood classic, but its 300 or so pages don’t warrant three separate movies and likely nine hours of screen time.

That said, the first installment in “The Hobbit” trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a rich and exciting adventure that doesn’t really feel excessively padded while you’re watching it.

“The Hobbit” connects briefly with “Lord of the Rings” hero Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his aging uncle Bilbo, whose memories send the story back 60 years.

There, a young Bilbo — played engagingly by Martin Freeman (“Love Actually”) — is corralled into a grand adventure by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a company of rowdy dwarves.

The dwarves have a scheme to rescue their ancestral mountain home — conquered long ago by the fierce dragon Smaug — and, according to Gandalf, the timid homebody Bilbo is the light-fingered burglar they need to assist them.

Much like “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Jackson’s first “Lord of the Rings” adaptation, “The Hobbit” takes its time getting into the adventure, lingering over an introductory dinner and even mixing in some dwarf songs.

Once the action starts, however, the film flows at a good pace, with the company running into orcs, goblins, giants, trolls, elves and several familiar faces.

The tone is a little lighter than “Lord of the Rings”; after all, it’s not the fate of ALL Middle Earth in the balance this time. Gandalf is a little more playful than in the past (or is it the future?), and he gets some amusing help from the tree-hugging wizard Radagast.

Freeman seems a natural-born hobbit and does a good job portraying Bilbo’s growth into a full-fledged member of the group — highlighted by his ballyhooed battle of riddles with the doomed ring bearer Gollum.

Gollum (Andy Serkis) only makes a brief appearance, but the character is, if possible, even more expressive and compelling than it was in “Lord of the Rings.”

The baker’s dozen dwarves who are Bilbo’s skeptical companions are largely indistinguishable individually, with the exception of the company’s dashing leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). As the series moves on, others will likely make more of a mark.

“An Unexpected Journey” didn’t need to be as long as it is, but its unnecessary parts are still fun to watch. Think of it as Peter Jackson’s extended director’s cut, without having to wait for the DVD.

Rental Recommendation: It would be interesting to see what kind of damage Ian McKellen’s Magneto, from “X-Men,” would do against the metal-clad armies of Middle Earth. Grade: B.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Grade: B+

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis

Rated: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)

Running time: 169 minutes