Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finds his home overtaken by a group of dwarf visitors in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The movie is the first of three movies framed as an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed fantasy novel and a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings.”

Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy

Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finds his home overtaken by a group of dwarf visitors in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The movie is the first of three movies framed as an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed fantasy novel and a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings.”

‘The Hobbit’: On the road again

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Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Run time: 169 minutes

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis

Now playing at Wildhorse Metropolitan Stadium Cinemas and at The West Theatre in Craig.

One book, three movies. It may not add up for every story, but like the set of films that preceded it, a trilogy makes perfect sense, and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” looks like the beginning of a captivating series.

Among all the lands of Middle Earth, none is so quiet and peaceful as The Shire, and few locales are as cozy as Bag End, the stately home of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Like most hobbits, his life typically is uneventful, but the sudden appearance of the mysterious wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) changes everything, bringing with him a company of 13 dwarfs.

Led by the benevolent Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the group seeks to reclaim its fallen kingdom of Erebor, a faraway stronghold within The Lonely Mountain, long held under the terror of a greedy dragon named Smaug. Bilbo’s main concern is getting his unwanted visitors out of his home, yet one way or another, he winds up joining the troupe as a burglar who will be responsible for finding a safe way into Smaug’s domain.

Before the sheltered hobbit must contend with that threat, there are plenty more perils in store for him as the group sets off on its quest and he journeys out into the wide world for the first time in his life.

It takes more than just curly hair, pointy ears and furry feet to make a hobbit, and Freeman is a welcome addition to the ranks of actors who have played the halflings. It’s a joy to watch as Bilbo goes from a stuffy homebody whose most adventurous part of the day is sitting on his porch blowing smoke rings to a stalwart explorer of new lands.

You don’t see too many of those wearing burgundy corduroy jackets and complaining about the lack of a proper handkerchief while on the road, but even so ...

McKellen returns to the role of everyone's favorite wizard, with Gandalf more puckish this time in his powers of suggestion, setting into motion a master plan to combat a growing threat across Middle Earth. But more about that later.

Armitage is a grand casting choice as Thorin, a bitter and displaced dwarven lord who has spent years trying to find a way to take back the empire stolen from his family. Speaking of the second-shortest race in the world, it’s fascinating to see a people we barely got a chance to get acquainted with in “The Lord of the Rings.”

We already may have seen dwarfs galore in two “Snow White” movies in 2012, but the dirty, dingy dozen here by far are the best of the year, from Thorin’s right-hand man Balin (Ken Stott) to double-wide buffoon Bombur (Stephen Hunter), and all the rest — Kíli, Fíli, Dwalin, Óin, Glóin, Dori, Nori, Ori, Bifur, Bofur. For all the newly introduced characters, you can’t beat some of those returning veterans, chiefly the motion-capture marvel that is Gollum (Andy Serkis), whose chance meeting with Bilbo yields some very intriguing results for the future, Precious.

The riddling creature with a love/hate relationship with a piece of jewelry looks better than ever, though the same can’t be said about the trolls, goblins and orcs the party encounters, which look a little too polished in their appearance compared to the way they looked in “LOTR.” A towering orc known as Azog (Manu Bennett) looks like he just stepped out of “Avatar” compared to the rubber monster prosthetics used in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.”

The villainous Great Goblin (Barry Humphries) alone looks like a sleek Jabba the Hutt with legs and makes us wonder whether director Peter Jackson is pulling a George Lucas on us with a prequel that’s more dependent on slick visual effects than its legendary predecessors. The difference between “An Unexpected Journey” and “The Phantom Menace” is Jackson doesn’t claim to have carte blanche in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s first big hit to the screen.

Sure, the already divisive new filming technique of high frame rate gives us an altogether different viewpoint, and the general tone is lighter and sometimes silly, but Tolkien himself had to alter his readers’ perceptions between the publication of the children-oriented “The Hobbit” and the adult epic fantasy “LOTR.” What’s more, as a screenwriter — teamed again with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh as well as Tolkien rookie Guillermo del Toro — Jackson and his crew mine the many appendices and footnotes Tolkien included in his later works to give us a more full-bodied story.

You barely may have seen names like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch) within Tolkien’s repertoire, but they’re important to be sure.

Do we need a full trilogy to cover so much ground? Well, you may want to ask again in summer 2014 after we’ve been there and back again, to borrow an alternate title.

No one can say “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is on quite the same level as “The Lord of the Rings,” and it’s almost unfair to hold it to those expectations. The look and feel of Middle Earth may not be exactly the same as you remembered it, but of Tolkien’s four most famous books, we all know which one kind of stood apart and didn’t sync up with the rest.

With the adventure having begun all over again, let’s see where the journey takes us.

Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.

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