(Most of what follows comes from my Examiner review, plus some extended thoughts, because that's what Peter Jackson would do.)
There are many things to love in Peter Jackson's new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The best part is, even if you weren't a fan or haven't seen his related Lord of the Rings films, you will be entertained.
Fortuitously, he has packed the movie with plenty of comedic elements, which viewers of this past summer's biggest blockbuster The Avengers will absolutely embrace. Whether it's the dwarves who accompany Bilbo Baggins (played to perfection by Martin Freeman) or the trolls who nearly make them into dinner, and most especially Gollum (Andy Serkis), whenever Jackson isn't waxing nostalgic for the high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien he's having the best of times. The audience is sure to agree.
That's what the source material always had, too, and so it's funny that the more broadly accessible of Tolkien's Middle-Earth adventures has come second to the big screen, though the link to the grand mythology fans originally embraced in the quest to destroy the One Ring is firmly established in An Unexpected Journey, including Bilbo's momentous meeting of Gollum and his discovery of that ring.
Otherwise this is Jackson doing fantasy as apparently only he can, which is made all the more evident by the added emphasis on the fantastic elements. This one, as mentioned, is infested with dwarves, who like in the earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy are used mostly for comic relief. The standout dwarf, however, is also a surrogate Aragorn named Thorin, who is also a king looking for a kingdom, not to mention a great warrior. Jackson again cast big actors in small roles, and Richard Armitage plays Thorin to grand effect.
Among the the returning actors, Ian Holm briefly reprises Bilbo in a prologue, which also allows us a visit with Frodo, once again played by Elijah Wood, who appears to have taken the opportunity to reinterpret his portrayal of the character by way of Dan Radcliffe's Harry Potter.
In fact, An Unexpected Journey in a lot of ways speaks to the odd timing of the past decade that saw Harry become every bit the epic movie franchise that Jackson's films have made of Tolkien. The films based on J.K. Rowling's books, as the books themselves, became more epic, more similar to Jackson's films. Now, strangely and appropriately enough, Jackson's films are returning the favor.
Though Gollum appears late in the film and echoes the comedic elements that have preceded him, he's still the best of them. He stole The Two Towers from Frodo, and he steals An Unexpected Journey from any manner of beasts created in concert with Guillermo del Toro, who at one point was slated to direct The Hobbit. Everything you loved about Gollum the first time around is amplified. He becomes, if anything, more inspired the less he's directly associated with the heaviness of that ring, his "precious," as he engages in a battle of wits with Bilbo. If you think it sounds funny just to say that last part, then you now have a small inkling of what to expect.
If you really liked Fellowship of the Ring (like I did), Jackson does you a solid by copying a lot of the specific elements of that film in An Unexpected Journey, sometimes going so far as to subvert these very expectations, especially in the ending, which may be the new film's greatest strength. Its biggest weakness, however, is the endless parade of battle scenes. One would think, as Jackson obviously has in all his Tolkien films, that battle scenes automatically equal money. Part of the reason why I wasn't as impressed with The Two Towers and Return of the King was their reliance on battle scenes and neglect of the characters who should have made them count for something. In An Unexpected Journey, the battle scenes are staged better but come too frequently, so that by the end you're expecting Jackson to have come to a point, and even though he does it's less about the battle than what Bilbo and Thorin learn from it. The bad guy escapes to fight another day, in other words, like a bad comic book villain.
Another criticism I've maintained for the latter two installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was Howard Shore's increasingly limited inspiration for his score material. His work in Fellowship of the Ring was one of the biggest reasons why I loved that movie so immediately and enduringly. He brings that A-game back in An Unexpected Journey, which is also part of Jackson's increasing interest to bring his true Tolkien geek love closer to the front, whether that means dwarves singing mournfully (as Aragorn does in at least one of those extended editions from the first trilogy) or natives dialects and subtitles suddenly popping up everywhere.
The most clever thing Jackson does in An Unexpected Journey, however, is keep the biggest villain mostly out of the picture. I'm not talking about Sauron (sometimes known as the Necromancer, beginning here), whose disembodied eye was a distinctive yet to my mind inadequate visual from the earlier films. I'm talking about Smaug, who happens to be a dragon. Most mainstream audiences automatically think about dragons when they think about fantasy at all, and even some fantasy fans themselves have this instinct, whether you're talking Pern or Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle. I know movies love dragons, whether you're talking How to Train Your Dragon or Reign of Fire. Harry Potter fought a dragon in Goblet of Fire. Smaug will make that much bigger an impact when he appears later because of this.
You will love most of this film, and you will absolutely and enthusiastically sign up to join the continuing journey.