The level of rancor aimed at Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is surprising, to say the least; one doesn’t expect the prequel to a Best Picture-winning screen franchise (and a prequel developed by Said Best Picture-Winning Screen Franchise architects, no less) to receive the kind of hate reserved for, I dunno, The Real Cancun or M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.  From A.O. Scott at The New York Times: “the movie…rises to weary, belated mediocrity entirely on its own steam.”  The Village Voice‘s Scott Foundas was a little kinder, allowing that “The Hobbit…feels distinctly like a members-only affair. It’s self-conscious monument art, but is the monument to Tolkien or to Jackson himself?”  The most hilariously hyperbolic review in terms of raw spite came courtesy of Ain’t It Cool News‘ Jeremy Smith (Mr. Beaks), who used up his one AICN article a month to call The Hobbit “the biggest artistic miscalculation from an elite filmmaker since Skidoo.”

Maybe critics were lashing out (and not unreasonably) at Jackson’s decision to turn the relatively slight J.R.R. Tolkien novel (most paperbacks bring it in at 350 words or less) into three nearly-three-hour features.  Maybe they hated seeing the film in its HFR of 48 fps, which renders much of the blockbuster spectacle in the same flat, stuttery visual palette as PAL-converted British television.  Maybe Peter Jackson just shot all their dogs – I don’t know.  Whatever the reason, critics hate this movie (though not audiences, given its $1 billion-and-counting worldwide gross), and while An Unexpected Journey isn’t perfect, it certainly isn’t as dire as the reviews suggest.

Fact is, it’s actually pretty good, once you get past the prologue, which finds an elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, back from The Fellowship of the Ring) describing the events that led to his trek across Middle-Earth.  Jackson pulled a similar trick at the start of The Lord of the Rings, using the first ten minutes to establish the connection between Lord Sauron and the One Ring, and the effect was bombastic, cataclysmic.  Using a horde of then-cutting-edge digital magic, Jackson tracked the ring’s corrosive effect across nations; we had to understand how important this little band of gold was, and Jackson’s hyperbolic instincts conveyed the severity of the matter with Wagnerian pomp.  He’s going for the same impact in An Unexpected Journey, but the bombast doesn’t fit the material anymore – when you get right to it, The Hobbit happens because a group of greedy dwarves lose their riches to a dragon, and they want it back.  That’s it, and no amount of Eisenstein-ian montages or thundering rains of fire can disguise the fact that, at its core, The Hobbit just isn’t as serious a story as The Lord of the Rings.  It’s a pulp adventure: think Star Wars with Led Zeppelin-style psychedelia.

Thankfully, Jackson realizes this, and An Unexpected Journey begins to reveal its pleasures once he downshifts to a less histrionic pace.  The first forty-or-so minutes focus entirely on young Bilbo (the great Martin Freeman) as he reluctantly welcomes the film’s dragon-hunting party to his home in the Shire, and though the reviews savaged this section, I found it most engaging.  Yes, it’s a little long (at times, you wonder if Jackson split up The Hobbit so he could present it in real time), and unlike The Lord of the Rings‘ core group of heroes, Jackson has trouble distinguishing the dwarves from one another despite the extended runtime (of the thirteen dwarves, only Richard Armitage’s Aragorn-wannabe Thorin Oakenshield and James Nesbitt’s cheerful Bofur make an impression), but it’s light and goofy, with the kind of heedless slapstick that Jackson made a trademark of his early splatter comedies (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Dead-Alive).  In an age where blockbuster cinema tends to lay on the melodramatics with a heavy brush (The Matrix series, The Bourne franchise, and – God love ‘em – Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), it’s refreshing to see a big-budget epic wear its sense of humor on its sleeve.

Plus, An Unexpected Journey has two wonderful straight men to balance out the gags.  As Bilbo, Freeman is wonderful.  He brings the same understated frustration that made his “Office” and “Sherlock” characters so delightful; when the dwarves destroy his kitchen, his sly reaction shots ground whatever physical comedy is going on in the foreground.  In a way, that’s his M.O. for the whole film.  No matter how over-the-top the action gets, Freeman’s wry, low-key presence gives the digitized proceedings human stakes that it might otherwise lack.

And right at his side is Ian McKellen, who returns as Gandalf the Grey.  McKellen’s wise wizard was the best part of The Fellowship of the Rings, all rumpled charm and surprising ferocity; you felt the loss when he returned as the resurrected – and far less empathetic – Gandalf the White for The Two Towers and The Return of the King.  But since this is pre-Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey is back, and his presence justifies reformatting The Hobbit into three movies, if for no other reason than we get to spend more time with McKellen.  Gandalf unifies the protagonists in their quest towards Smaug (a briefly-glimpsed CGI dragon who Benedict Cumberbatch will play in the next movie), and McKellen has just the right amount of movie-star charisma to unify the cast, too.  He’s funny when the movie needs him to be funny, threatening when Gandalf needs to bring the thunder (though, true to form, Jackson overdoes it on the deus ex machina moments when Gandalf swoops in and saves the dwarves from certain doom), and he gets to deliver the film’s mission statement: Gandalf trusts an unassuming hobbit like Bilbo because he believes the “everyday deeds of ordinary folk…keep the darkness at bay,” and McKellen turns this sentiment into a lovely grace note.

That said, grace isn’t something that An Unexpected Journey specializes in.  McKellen and Freeman rise above the fray by playing it cool; the rest of the film works as a relentless entertainment machine.  Seventy-five-percent of this stuff is gold: Jackson can stage an action sequence like nobody’s business, and An Unexpected Journey damn near trips over all the chaos erupting at a given moment.  Once Bilbo joins the dwarves, we get ravenous Orc armies, dueling mountains (yes, you read that right), giant trolls, and – in the movie’s action highlight – its extended climax, which plays out as one long set-piece, as Bilbo and the dwarves fight to escape the clutches of the Goblin King, only to stumble right in the path of the man-flesh-hungry Orc warrior (one of An Unexpected Journey‘s disappointments: Jackson has eschewed the great physical makeup of The Lord of the Rings for a mostly unconvincing CGI creation) that’s dogged our heroes for the whole picture.

The movie is so much fun that it isn’t until Jackson takes a breather – a pit-stop at Rivendell (thus making time for Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee cameos), which is as deadly to the film’s momentum as the (shocker!) Rivendell sequence is in The Fellowship of the Ring – when you realize the downside of trying to plump a tiny book into three epic frames.  All the incident in the world can’t hide the fact that An Unexpected Journey barely covers that much narrative ground from start to finish; our heroes escape death countless times to reach…a chapter break that doesn’t even come at the end of the novel’s first third.  It’s telling that An Unexpected Journey‘s best scene is also its most belabored one: after escaping the Goblin King, Bilbo encounters Andy Serkis’ crazed Gollum, and their battle of wits for the One Ring has the measured intensity of a one-act play.  Still, as terrific as Serkis and Freeman are, their playlet takes almost twenty minutes when five would do.  It feels like fan service to the Lord of the Rings crowd, and it’s a major digression from the main action.

To an extent, this is much ado about nothing, albeit exciting, pretty, and mostly entertaining nothing.  Yet for all the film’s indulgences, I suppose the best compliment I could give An Unexpected Journey is that even after viewing all 169 minutes of it, if you told me I could watch Hobbits 2 and 3 immediately afterwards, I’d plunge in (jury’s still out on whether or not I’d have the patience for the upcoming An Unexpected Journey extended cut, though).  It’s a pleasure wandering around in Middle-Earth again, especially considering Jackson only wants his audience to have a good time.  An Unexpected Journey might not match the heights of The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s better than The Return of the King, and that’s no small feat.

Warner and New Line’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy looks and sounds phenomenal.  While the Blu-ray doesn’t offer the film in HFR (you can switch on the “TrueMotion” mode on your TV if you want a sense of the aesthetic Jackson was after), it looks stunning all the same.  Jackson shot on digital, and the image has perfect clarity and detail without suffering from any distracting motion effects.  The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a monster – it’s immersive and robust while maintaining clean tones.

Features are a little fluffy.  Besides twenty minutes of theatrical and video game trailers and a short location tour of the film’s New Zealand landscapes, the centerpiece is ten production diaries that, together, run over two hours.  That sounds like a lot, but they play more like extended promos than substantive featurettes.  Never fear, though, ‘cause Jackson has already promised a feature-laden extended cut with commentaries and behind-the-scenes materials galore.  The disc also has a code for a free The Desolation of Smaug sneak peek on March 24th.

And if An Unexpected Journey is any indicator, it too should be a trip, if a baggy one.  An Unexpected Journey isn’t perfect, but it’s fun, and in the end, that’s all that matters.

The Blu-ray Combo Pack, Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack, and two-disc DVD Special Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey street on March 19th.  Begin your Hobbit collection through Amazon’s listing HERE.

Note: Follow The Hobbit on Twitter at #TheHobbit.  Also, make sure to catch the live first look at The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on Sunday, March 24th, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern/12pm Pacific at  The live event will include a Q&A with Peter Jackson.  Video questions can be submitted beginning March 12th through March 19th on The Hobbit‘s Facebook page, or through the Vine mobile app using the hashtag #askPeterJackson.  Fans can also Tweet links to video questions using the hashtag #askPeterJackson.

Culture Movie Review: THE HOBBIT – AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Is Far Better Than...