By the time Peter Jackson wrapped his sterling Lord of the Rings
trilogy, audiences had spent nearly 12 hours in Middle Earth, marveling at the dense cinematic landscape. It was only a matter of time before J.R.R. Tolkien’s even more popular—and considerably lighter—novel The Hobbit
hit the screen. Yet anyone expecting another LOTR
installment or, even worse, The Phantom Hobbit
, will be bowled over by the spectacle Jackson has produced. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
takes his penchant for sprawling panoramic views, large-scale melees and lingering shots of small men gazing into the distance and distills it through the eyes of young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), prodded into adventure by the wizard Gandalf (a returning Ian McKellen, clearly enjoying himself). The mission: join a group of dwarves led by fallen king Thorin (a gruff Richard Armitage) to reclaim their mountain kingdom and its treasures from a gigantic dragon. “All good stories deserve embellishment,” Gandalf tells Bilbo, and it’s safe to say the film delivers in a tall-tale sense, from a game of wits with snarling cockney trolls to the infamous “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with a never-more-frightening Gollum (motion-captured by Andy Serkis to perfection). After a slow and decidedly kiddie start, The Hobbit
moves at the lightning pace of a chase movie intercut with stellar mini-adventures involving orcs astride wolves, gigantic spiders, soaring eagles and reanimated kings. It’s all anchored firmly by Freeman’s assured performance, which exudes charm and childlike fear. From the little man’s perspective, it all seems new again.