"All good stories deserve embellishment," says the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. He says it with a twinkle, as though he knew snarky critics would quote it.
"Embellishment" characterizes The Hobbit's journey to film, from the expansion of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings prequel first to two movies and then to three, and to the decision to shoot the movies in a new 48-frames-per-second format. Instead of expressing excitement about director Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth after his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, the chatter has been about this project striving to live up to mammoth expectations.
So it's immediately concerning that An Unexpected Journey opens with a framing sequence involving the elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) and the young Frodo (Elijah Wood) before the birthday party featured in The Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo is writing a memoir of his own adventure 60 years earlier, when Gandalf recruited him to join a company of dwarves-in-exile who are trying to reclaim their hometown from a dragon. Where we're going starts feeling less important than where we've been.
That sense continues as familiar faces from The Lord of the Rings films show up for cameos, most notably Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). They join Gandalf for a conference in the elf city of Rivendell, where they discuss how this journey isn't just about fighting a dragon but is somehow connected to the creeping threat of Sauron, the chief antagonist from The Lord of the Rings. Something threatens to disrupt the balance of good and evil - something that's going to happen in those other movies.
The notable exception is the tragic Gollum, once again played by motion-capture genius Andy Serkis. Bilbo's encounter with Gollum is crucial and actually comes from Tolkien's book; it's how Bilbo acquires the One Ring. Jackson smartly puts Serkis' performance, and Freeman's satisfyingly fidgety portrayal of Bilbo, front and center.
There are magnificent action sequences throughout this 160-minute movie, from an encounter with a trio of trolls to a war between walking mountains. Each is as well crafted as anything in The Lord of the Rings. But The Lord of the Rings was an epic, while The Hobbit is forced to become one. In The Lord of the Rings, the world's fate is at stake. Plus, there is rich material about the nature of heroism and heroic myths. The Hobbit, meanwhile, is a simple quest narrative, which seems like a wire hanger trying to support a full suit of armor. Jackson's so attached to the story's cinematic legacy that he can't focus on telling the tale that's right in front of him.