More than a decade has passed since Peter Jackson and company first ventured to Middle Earth with "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." At this point, audiences pretty much know what to expect from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," despite the title's insistence to the contrary. That's hardly a knock on Jackson's fourth installment in the franchise, a prequel that takes place 60 years before the earlier movies' events but basically resurrects the same world of limber and furry-footed humanoids, fire-breathing dragons and deadly Orcs. Plot comes secondary to the care involved in bringing Middle Earth back to life. While Jackson hasn't delivered a hit on par with his "Lord of the Rings" movies, "The Hobbit" proves he can still do justice to the tricky blend of fantasy and action that made the earlier entries such enjoyable works of popular entertainment.
Oddly, though, this latest entry veers away from the epic narrative scope in favor of exploring the backdrop the original setting. Based on J.R.R Tolkien's initial novel, a fairly slim volume compared to the trilogy that followed, "The Hobbit" has been rather clumsily diced into a trilogy in despite lacking a story that demands it. "An Unexpected Journey" unfolds at a leisurely pace, with little taking place over the course of nearly three hours aside from a series of alternately witty and perilous encounters. Imaginative as it is, this initial piece of "The Hobbit" odyssey never makes a real case for its existence except that it keeps the franchise alive.
Beginning in the era of the earlier films -- an excuse for Elijah Wood to make a brief cameo as Frodo -- the story opens with the elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) jotting down memories of the exploits that changed his life. For the rest of the running time, we follow the young and plucky Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in his random mission to help a group of dwarves regain their kingdom. Singled out by the characteristically enigmatic Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen on muted autopilot), Bilbo is assigned to help an army of bearded little men led by the stoic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) travel across the land to face down the Dragon Smaug. A resistant adventurer despite Gandalf's confidence, Bilbo reacts to the news with bumbling fits of resistance. A prolonged sequence finds him baffled by the sudden arrival of dwarves at his home one night for a meeting of their battle plans, as they dominate his dining room and eventually convince him to sign a contract that binds him to their service.
Bilbo's ongoing confusion over the situation mostly plays for laughs as he scurries about his cramped home -- but it's also a means of simply letting us relish the atmosphere of Middle Earth, a place of mostly good-humored and peculiar characters who speak in Tolkien's distinctive version of Old English and reminisce (this time, with a hypnotic a cappella performance!) about past times. That's only one of several mini-episodes that take the place of real forward momentum in "An Unexpected Journey," even though everyone's constantly on the move. Other vignettes include a ghastly showdown between the dwarves and a trio of hungry trolls, grisly battles with Orcs and goblins and the onscreen return of the most pathetic creature ever brought to life by state-of-the-art technology, Gollum.
Realized once more by the versatile Andy Serkis, Gollum's brief appearance near the end of "An Unexpected Journey" sets the stage for his appearance in the earlier films, providing yet another reminder that Jackson's special-effects wizards at his New Zealand-based WETA Digital work wonders in terms of bringing eerie, otherworldly beings to life with bonafide emotional expressions. That's not only moment when WETA shines: It's easy to marvel at details littered throughout "The Hobbit" without paying much attention to the progress of the story: An ominous battle between hulking rock giants in the dead of night is gripping to behold -- and a lot more engaging than the exposition preceding it when the dwarves drop by the Elven kingdom.
There's a sense throughout "An Unexpected Journey" that Jackson has transitioned out of a conventional filmmaking role and instead become New Zealand's resident Willy Wonka, the skillful proprietor of a wondrous Hobbit factory the country can call its own. (A recent article in The New York Times documents Prime Minister John Key's eagerness to pal around with Jackson and invest more of New Zealand's resources in "Hobbit"-related tourism.) The lush green hills, often captured by a roaming virtual camera, stand out more than individual performances or various plot twists.
If you're willing to just go with it, "An Unexpected Journey" is a competent ride, but as a whole it lacks purpose, giving the impression of a television program in its later seasons still chugging along while fully aware that it has peaked. Needless to say, "Hobbit" fans will find plenty to soak in; others may get the feeling of being bludgeoned by deja vu.
The hits won't stop coming anytime soon. "An Unexpected Journey" kicks off this latest trilogy, which continues with "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" in 2013 and "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" in 2014. There are worse franchises that have dominated multiplexes in recent times -- "Twilight" wrapped up this year, and the distended "Harry Potter" series concluded in 2011 -- and "The Hobbit" contains far more imaginative sights, sounds and mythology than either. As multimillion dollar undertakings go, it's an entirely tolerable indulgence, especially when you consider that this trilogy is set to wrap up just in time for the scheduled 2015 opening of the next "Star Wars" movie. That journey hasn't even been written yet, but for the time being, at least "The Hobbit" still has some magic left in its DNA.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warner Bros. releases "An Unexpected Journey" on December 14, when it should perform well due to the existing fandom for the franchise and relatively strong word of mouth. It may not make much of a dent in awards season but should help the franchise regain its moment as it enters a new stage of activity.