Comparisons are inevitable, but while it may not be as grand an adventure as the first “Lord of the Rings,” the initial part in “The Hobbit” film series is certainly a spectacular cinematic offering.
Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth looks and feels comfortably familiar; its newer locales and denizens expand the previous trilogy’s fantastic mythology, similarly a visually ensorcelling roster of heroes and terrifying lands.
The first part of this new prequel trilogy, “An Unexpected Journey,” tells the tale of a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the hobbit approached and persuaded by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into joining him and a squad of dwarf warriors in their quest to reclaim lost territory.
Bilbo gets into one monster-related scrape after another, proving time and again his heroism and loyalty to his new allies. A momentous meeting with the mad creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) introduces Bilbo to a long-coveted magic relic, while Gandalf uncovers a strange conspiracy that heralds more ominous events to come.
Like with most heroes from familiar sagas, Bilbo goes on a transformative journey, initially a reluctant, selfish fellow who eventually recognizes his desire for change. Freeman is a snug fit, credibly changing into a more confident presence in a couple of the film’s pivotal moments.
It’s elating to see older characters and their actors return; aside from McKellen as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett returns as the majestic Galadriel, Hugo Weaving is back as the commanding warrior-king Elrond, and Christopher Lee reprises his sinister sorcerer role Saruman.
While it doesn’t quite radiate the grandiosity of the previous films, “An Unexpected Journey” is sturdy and mesmerizing, a richly rendered reintroduction to the otherworldly realm. And Bilbo Baggins’ journey is rife with conflict and wit, giving us a new underdog to root for all over again.