J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" doesn't need to be split into three movies. Even with extra material from various appendices in the mix, I worry another nine hours of hobbits, dwarves, wizards and orcs won't be able to match the excitement of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
That said, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," is a good step in proving me wrong.
Minus the occasional meandering, the first segment in Peter Jackson's new trilogy provides enough thrills and meaningful character moments to justify its existence, even if the heroes of the film are nowhere close to completing their quest across Middle Earth.
Sixty years before the events of "Fellowship of the Ring," reluctant hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is visited by wizard Gandalf (welcome returnee Ian McKellen) and roped into a quest to save Dwarf land occupied by a vicious dragon. Joining Bilbo and Gandalf are 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). He's given some relevant backstory while the other dwarves serve mostly as comic relief.
It takes a while for the journey to get going, but once on the road the group encounters a variety of wretched beasts, including goblins, trolls and, most impressively, giant battling rock monsters.
Jackson uses many of his "Lord of the Rings" cast members, including McKellen, terrific as always in a juicy leading role, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Elven royalty and Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in a flash-forward that opens the movie.
Most notable is Andy Serkis back again in full motion-capture glory as Gollum. His appearance in the last act is the film's major highlight with Gollum and Bilbo engaged in a high-stakes battle of wits. Serkis gives "An Unexpected Journey" a major jolt just as the movie's numerous action sequences start feeling repetitive.
Of the newbies, Freeman makes a charismatic protagonist and relatable entryway into the craziness of Middle Earth. While the movie ends in the middle of the quest, "An Unexpected Journey" creates a nice character arc for Bilbo. Sometimes "small things" are the best defense against the evil in the world.
Jackson retains a strong command of special effects and blockbuster set pieces - 10 years of technical advances have been applied nicely here. Note: I saw the movie in 2D in the traditional 24 frames per second rate as opposed to the controversial 48 frames per second format.
The big question will be if Jackson can hold the momentum for another six hours. Some of the strands included in the film suggest more subplots involving the Elves and the possible emergence of Sauron, the big bad from the "Lord of the Rings." Will it prove necessary to the overall story or is it here simply to pad the story into three movies?
Let's hold that debate for 2013. The first film works well enough to maintain optimism for Part Two and the entire "Hobbit" saga.