It has been nearly 11 years since viewers first met Gandalf the Wizard and Bilbo Baggins on their adventure finding a magical ring.  The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy has a huge fan base, garnering multiple Oscars including a Best Picture win in 2004.  Now director Peter Jackson takes a step back in time with the first of three films based on the prequel to the "Rings" saga.
                                             "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (PG-13) begins with an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) getting ready to write about his first adventure with Gandalf (Ian McKellen).  As he tells it to Frodo (Elijah Wood), Bilbo begins to recall a dwarf kingdom called Erebor, which neighbors with a kingdom of wood elves, Dale.  One day a dragon, Smaug, managed to take down Dale and ruined Erebor.  It resulted in the dwarfs leaving for yet another kingdom, Moria, now taken over by a group of Orcs under the leadership of Azog, a huge palish monster. 
                                              When the dwarfs battle the Orcs, Erebor's leader, Thror (Jeffrey Thomas) gets his head chopped off by Azog.  Thror's grandson Thorin (Richard Armitrage) takes action and takes an arm off Azog. The dwarfs take back Moria, but at a cost as they end up being miners, toy makers and blacksmiths 
                                              This is where Bilbo enters the journey, though at first he's very reluctant.  We meet a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) being approached by Gandalf the Wizard (Ian McKellen) for joining on a quest.  Bilbo refuses but Gandalf leaves a mark on the front door. Next day a group of 12 dwarfs come barging in, followed by Gandalf and Thorin.  The group believes that 13 dwarfs is bad luck thus they want Bilbo as the 14th member, being assured by Gandalf that Bilbo is a burglar, or may become one.
                                             The adventure takes the travelers through Rivendell and into the Lonely Mountain where Azog and his army capture the travellers, except for Bilbo who sneaks out and encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis).  A battle of wits ensues involving riddles, but Bilbo finds the ring Gollum has kept for a long while.
                                            Bilbo, noticing that when he puts on the ring he is invisible, manages to escape Gollum and join his fellow adventurers, but can they escape Azog and his army.  And will they risk to meet the dragon guarding the dwarfs' treasure?
                                             It took four screenwriters, including Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro to bring the first chapter to life. Clipping at 2 hours, 46 minutes the film doesn't really drag that much.  Some viewers may complain that the story takes them from one battle to another, but one needs to keep in mind that this is a journey and there will be perils along the way.  I did not mind the battles, nor did I mind expanding some of the characters--it made the film come to life a bit more.  Perhaps my complaint here is that 10-15 minutes could be cut to create a better flow.
                                            Special effects are first-rate, the set designs and backdrops are something to marvel.  Lensing by Andrew Lesine is wonderful and editing by Jabez Olssen is good.  Howard Shore also chimes in with a very fine score, some of which incorporates the "LOTR" theme "May It Be".
                                              Acting is very good with Freeman shining as the younger Bilbo.  He takes us on the emotional ride and his facial expressions are delicious.  McKellen is a joy to watch as Gandalf, while the other dwarfs play off each other very well.  Also in the movie are Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett reprising their roles of Saruman and Galadriel respectfully; their roles are smaller but effective. 
                                              It's a surprise to me that some of the critics didn't enjoy this first installment of the "Hobbit" trilogy, but this is the prequel to the events that happened before the "Lord of the Rings" began.  Sadly, there will be another year before we can enjoy the second act, but as it is this "Unexpected Journey" will leave you wanting more.
                                             Final Grade: A Minus