Where you might expect excitement about the return of director Peter Jackson to Middle Earth after his wildly successful, Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, instead the chatter has been about how hard this whole project seems to working 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 Frodo (Elijah Wood) in advance of the birthday party featured in The Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo is working on the memoir of his own adventure 60 years earlier — when Gandalf recruited him to join a company of dwarves in exile, led by their leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), to re-capture their home city from a dragon — but that prologue feels designed almost entirely to remind you of this movie’s lineage. Where we’re going begins to feel less important than where we’ve been. That sense continues when the other familiar faces from The Lord of the Rings films show up for cameos. There are magnificent action sequences throughout the movie — from an encounter with a trio of trolls to a war between walking mountains and a dizzying underground confrontation between Bilbo’s party and an army of goblins — that are as well-crafted as anything in The Lord of the Rings. But that story also carried the weight of its world’s fate, and rich material about the nature of heroism and heroic myths. The burden of Middle-Earth-shaking, character-defining consequence — plus a dwarf diaspora — rests awkwardly on the simple quest narrative of The Hobbit like a wire hanger trying to support a full suit of armor. Plenty of The Hobbit’s detractors are bound to focus on its sheer volume, and the notion that Jackson is pulling a stunt akin to fiddling with the margins and font size of a term paper to reach a pre-determined target length. And it’s a fair criticism, especially when Bilbo’s initial meeting with the dwarves turns into a feature-length farcical set piece all on its own. Yet while the pacing is occasionally poky, the same was true at times of The Lord of the Rings, as well. The difference is that The Lord of the Rings was an epic; with The Hobbit, Peter Jackson is forcing it to become one. There’s “embellishment,” and then there’s feeling so attached to this story’s cinematic legacy that you can’t focus on telling the tale that’s right in front of you.
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