It’s a mostly welcome return to Middle Earth.
In part one of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of “The Hobbit,” “An Unexpected Journey,” moviegoers are transported back to that world of elves, trolls, goblins, wizards, dwarves and a small race of people with large, hairy feet.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to his epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a much simpler story aimed at children. So, when Jackson announced that his adaptation would grow from the originally planned two films to three, skeptics were quick to point to this as nothing more than a cash grab.
And after the first hour of “An Unexpected Journey,” it’s easy to give credence to that theory.
To be frank, that first hour drags. And drags. And drags.
When we’re introduced to the young Bilbo Baggins, he’s a simple hobbit living out his life in the Shire, happy to refrain from any adventures. Then, he gets an offer from the wizard Gandalf to help a band of dwarves reclaim their home and fortune from an evil dragon called Smaug.
The 13 dwarves are introduced invading Bilbo’s home and taking all his food and drink. It’s a dinner scene that literally seems to run for 45 minutes, and leaves one worried that there’s still two more films of potentially overblown exposition to go, assuming they make it through this one.
The journey begins and the pace seems to improve, but not at the rate one would hope. That’s not to say there aren’t things to enjoy. Once again, Jackson showcases the beauty of his homeland of New Zealand as it stands in for Middle Earth.
On the performance front, Martin Freeman, of BBC’s version of “The Office,” cuts a perfect cloth as Bilbo, while Ian McKellen makes a welcome return to the role of Gandalf.
But it takes the appearance of a gangly, emaciated creature from “Rings” to really liven the film up.
That creature is the tortured, tormented Gollum, and he’s again brought to breathtaking life by some of the top visual effects artists in the business and through the motion-capture and vocal performance of the fantastic Andy Serkis.
Many fans of “The Hobbit” point to the chapter where Gollum challenges Bilbo to a game of riddles as the book’s highlight. That’s true for the film as well.
It’s a battle of wits that also sets in motion that game-changing moment which spills over into the earlier trilogy. It’s no spoiler to say it involves a certain Ring of Power.
It’s also a game-changer for Jackson’s new trilogy in that it brings back the fun and adventure that made the “Rings” film so spellbinding and financially successful.
Gollum’s appearance wipes the slate clean on the tediousness of the film’s early goings and gets you excited for the rest of the story.
Let’s just hope there’s no more dinner scenes.