Approaching his 111th birthday, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins begins writing down the full story of his adventure 60 years earlier for the benefit of his nephew Frodo. Long before Bilbo's involvement, the Dwarf king Thrór brings an era of prosperity for his kin under the Lonely Mountain, far to the East, until the arrival of the dragon Smaug. Destroying the nearby town of Dale, Smaug drives the Dwarves out of their mountain and takes their hoard of gold. Thrór's grandson Thorin sees King Thranduil and his Wood-elves on a nearby hillside, and is dismayed when they take their leave rather than aid his people, resulting in Thorin's everlasting hatred of Elves.
In the Shire, 50-year-old Bilbo is tricked by the wizard Gandalf the Grey into hosting a party for Thorin and his company of dwarves: Balin, Dwalin, Fíli, Kíli, Dori, Nori, Ori, Óin, Glóin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur. Gandalf's aim is to recruit Bilbo as the company's "burglar" to aid them in their quest to enter the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo is unwilling to accept at first but has a change of heart after the company leaves without him the next day. Travelling onward, the company is captured by three trolls, Tom, Bert & William, after their ponies are captured. Bilbo stalls the trolls from eating them until dawn. Gandalf exposes the trolls to sunlight, turning them to stone. They search the trolls' cave and find treasure and Elven blades. Thorin and Gandalf each take an Elf-made blade—Orcrist and Glamdring, respectively. Gandalf also finds an elven shortsword ("Sting"), which he gives to Bilbo.
The wizard Radagast the Brown finds Gandalf and the company, and recounts an encounter at Dol Guldur with the Necromancer, a sorcerer who has been corrupting Greenwood with dark magic. Gandalf leads the company through a stone passage to Rivendell. There, Lord Elrond discloses a hidden indication of a secret door on the company's map of the Lonely Mountain, which will be visible only on Durin's Day. Gandalf later approaches the White Council — consisting of Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman the White — and presents a Morgul blade Radagast obtained from Dol Guldur as a sign that the Necromancer is linked to the Witch-king of Angmar. When Saruman presses concern to the more present matter of the dwarves and Smaug, requesting that Gandalf put an end to the quest, Gandalf secretly reveals to Galadriel he had anticipated this and had the dwarves move forward without him.
The company journeys into the Misty Mountains where they find themselves amid a colossal battle between stone giants. They take refuge in a cave and are captured by Goblins, who take them to their leader, the Great Goblin in the heart of the mountain. Bilbo becomes separated from the dwarves and falls into a cave where he encounters Gollum, who unknowingly drops a golden ring. Pocketing the ring, Bilbo finds himself confronted by Gollum. They play a riddle game, wagering that Bilbo will be shown the way out if he wins or eaten by Gollum if he loses. Bilbo eventually wins by asking Gollum what he has in his pocket. Noticing his ring is lost, Gollum realizes that Bilbo possesses it and chases him. Bilbo discovers that the ring grants him invisibility, but when he has a chance to kill Gollum, Bilbo spares his life out of pity and escapes while Gollum shouts his hatred towards the hobbit Baggins.
Meanwhile, the Great Goblin reveals to the dwarves that Azog, an Orc war-chief who beheaded Thrór and lost his forearm to Thorin in battle outside the Dwarven kingdom of Moria, has placed a bounty on Thorin's head. Gandalf arrives and leads the dwarves in an escape and kills the Great Goblin. Bilbo exits the mountain and rejoins the company, keeping secret his newly obtained ring. The company is ambushed by Azog and his hunting party, and takes refuge in trees. Thorin charges at Azog, who overpowers and severely injures him with his Warg. Bilbo saves Thorin from the orcs just as the company is rescued by eagles. They escape to the safety of the Carrock where Gandalf revives Thorin, who renounces his previous disdain for Bilbo after being saved by him. They see the Lonely Mountain in the distance, where a thrush knocks an acorn against a stone, waking Smaug.
The characters of Galadriel, Saruman, Radagast the Brown, and Frodo Baggins appear in the novel The Lord of the Rings, but not in the novel The Hobbit. (Radagast was also dropped from the film version of Lord of the Rings, merely being mentioned in passing). Gandalf, Gollum, Bilbo Baggins and the Necromancer appear in both novels, although the latter is referred to in Lord of the Rings as Sauron. Only Bilbo is portrayed by a different actor in the two sets of films, as the age difference affects his character moreso. The older Bilbo (Ian Holm) appears in the prologue section of this film.
Cameos in the film include director Peter Jackson and editor Jabez Olssen as Erebor Dwarf refugees running from the dragon Smaug in the opening prologue; picture double Hayden J. Weal as a dwarf carrying gems during Thranduil's visit in Erebor; James Nesbitt's then-wife Sonia Forbes-Adam as Belladonna Took, Bilbo's mother; Nesbitt's daughters Peggy and Mary as children of Dale; Luke Evans as Girion; and production designer Dan Hennah as the Old Took, Belladonna's father. Peter Jackson's daughter, Philippa Boyens's second son, and Andy Serkis' children made cameos in the Old Took's party; and Jabez Olssen's wife and children, Weta Workshop founder Richard Taylor's children, and set decorator Ra Vincent's children all cameo in the market scene. Writer for Ain'tItCoolNews.com, Eric Vespe, portrays Fredegar Chubb, the fish seller at the market. The cameos in the Old Took's party and the market scene are shown only in the extended edition.
A film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit (1937) was in development for several years after the critical and financial success of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001–2003), co-written, co-produced, and directed by Peter Jackson. Jackson was initially going to produce a two-film adaptation of The Hobbit, which was to be directed by Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro left the project in May 2010, after about two years of working with Jackson and his production team, due to delays caused in part by financial problems at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Jackson was announced as director that October.
The Hobbit films were produced back to back, like The Lord of the Rings films. Principal photography for The Hobbit films began on 21 March 2011 in New Zealand and ended on 6 July 2012, after 266 days of filming. Pick-ups for An Unexpected Journey were filmed in July 2012 as well. Work on the film was expected to be completed on 26 November, just two days prior to the film's Wellington premiere. Peter Jackson would later comment that Del Toro's sudden exit created problems as he felt he had inadequate preparation time which led to him shooting the films with unfinished scripts and without storyboards
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey used a shooting and projection frame rate of 48 frames per second, becoming the first feature film with a wide release to do so. The new projection rate was advertised as "High Frame Rate" to the general public. However, the majority of cinemas projected the film at the industry standard 24 fps after the film was converted.
The musical score for An Unexpected Journey was composed by Howard Shore. It was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and featured several vocal soloists. The original song "Song of the Lonely Mountain", sung by Neil Finn, served as the end title theme. The album received nominations for various awards and peaked in the top ten charts in Korea and the United States.
According to news reports, up to 27 animals died during the production of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The first trailer for An Unexpected Journey was first screened before the Jackson-produced The Adventures of Tintin in the US on 21 December 2011, and released on the Internet on the same day. Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times said, "While it was all too fleeting there was enough in it to stir the heart of fans." Jen Chaney of The Washington Post stated, "Visually and tonally, this preview for [An Unexpected Journey] looks like a perfect match for the Frodo Baggins tales that released in 2001, 2002 and 2003. […] But plot isn't the main matter at hand in the trailer… This clip is all about reacquainting us with Middle-earth."
Jackson, Freeman, McKellen, Armitage, Serkis, Wood, and co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens appeared at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International promoting the film and screening 12 minutes of footage.
On 8 October 2012, Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown announced that for the week of the premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the capital of New Zealand would be renamed the "Middle of Middle-earth".
Three video games were released in December for different platforms to coincide with the theatrical release of the film featuring tie-in materials. Those were:Guardians of Middle-earth, which was released with the special disclaimer on the front art, marking the connection to the feature film and contains models and characters from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, including Nori, Gollum, Dwalin and others.
Lego The Lord of the Rings (video game), which was released around the same time as the motion picture and contains a Lego model of Radagast, based on his portrayal in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth, which features characters and locations as well as the elements of the official soundtrack.
The world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took place on 28 November 2012 at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand, with a full theatrical release in New Zealand on 12 December. The film was released 13 December 2012 in Europe, 14 December 2012 in India, Canada and United States, and 26 December 2012 (Boxing Day) in Australia. It was also screened at the 65th Royal Film Performance in London on 12 December 2012.
Around 100,000 people lined the red carpet on Courtenay Place for the film's premiere, and the entire event was broadcast live on TV in New Zealand, as well as streaming over the internet.
An extended edition of the film had a limited re-release on 5 October 2015, accompanied by a special greeting from Peter Jackson.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D on 19 March 2013, with an extended edition, with 13 minutes of additional footage and three bonus discs containing approximately nine hours of special features, released on 5 November 2013. In the United Kingdom, the film was released on 8 April 2013.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey grossed $303 million in the United States and Canada and $718.1 million elsewhere for a worldwide total of $1.021 billion, becoming the 15th film in history to reach $1 billion. It is the fourth highest-grossing film of 2012 and the 26th highest-grossing film of all time. It scored a worldwide opening weekend of $222.6 million, including $15.1 million from 452 IMAX theaters around the world, which was an IMAX opening-weekend record for December.
An Unexpected Journey earned $13.0 million during its midnight run, setting a December midnight record (previously held by Avatar). It then topped the box office on its opening day (Friday, 14 December 2012) earning $37.1 million from 4,045 theaters (midnight earnings included), setting a December opening-day record (previously held by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). By the end of its first weekend it grossed $84.62 million, finishing in first place and setting a then December opening-weekend record (previously held by I Am Legend). 3D showings accounted for 49% of weekend ticket sales while IMAX showings generated $10.1 million (12% of the weekend gross). The film held onto the top spot for a second weekend, despite declining 57% to $36.7 million. An Unexpected Journey remained at the top of the box office during its third weekend, dropping only 11% to $32.9 million.
An Unexpected Journey earned $11.2 million on its opening day (Wednesday, 12 December 2012) from 16 markets. Through its first Sunday, it managed a five-day opening-weekend gross of just under $138.0 million. It topped the box office outside North America on two consecutive weekends. In Sweden, it scored the second-largest five-day opening with $6.20 million (behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2). Its three largest openings occurred in the UK, Ireland, and Malta ($18.8 million); Russia and the CIS ($17.8 million), and Germany ($17.1 million).
After the New Zealand premiere, Television New Zealand noted that critical responses were "largely positive" but with "mixed responses to the film's technological advances". After the film's international release, Forbes called reviews "unenthusiastic" and the Los Angeles Times said the critical consensus is that the film "stumbles". The film holds a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 270 reviews, with an average score of 6.6/10. The site's consensus reads "Peter Jackson's return to Middle-earth is an earnest, visually resplendent trip, but the film's deliberate pace robs the material of some of its majesty." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 58 out of 100 based on collected reviews from 40 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". The main contention of debate was regarding the film's length, its controversial High Frame Rate, and whether or not the film matched the level of expectation built from The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, while the film's visual style, special effects, music score, and cast were praised, especially the performances of Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, and Andy Serkis. According to CinemaScore polls, the film received an "A" grade from audiences.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone criticised the film's use of "48 frames per second… Couple that with 3D and the movie looks so hyper-real that you see everything that's fake about it… The 169 minutes of screen time hurts, since the first 45 minutes of the film traps us in the hobbit home of the young Bilbo Baggins," but continued with "Once Bilbo and the dwarves set on their journey… things perk up considerably. Trolls, orcs, wolves and mountainous monsters made of remarkably pliable stone bring out the best in Jackson and his Rings co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens." Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph gave the film two stars out of five and said "Thank heavens for Andy Serkis, whose riddling return as Gollum steals the entire film. It is the only time the digital effects and smoother visuals underline, rather than undermine, the mythical drama of Bilbo's adventure. As a lover of cinema, Jackson’s film bored me rigid; as a lover of Tolkien, it broke my heart." He thought the film was "so stuffed with extraneous faff and flummery that it often barely feels like Tolkien at all – more a dire, fan-written internet tribute." Time Out magazine's Keith Uhlich praised the film as "a mesmerizing study in excess, Peter Jackson and company's long-awaited prequel to the Lord of the Rings saga is bursting with surplus characters, wall-to-wall special effects, unapologetically drawn-out story tangents and double the frame rate (48 over 24) of the average movie." The Guardian magazine's Peter Bradshaw commented on use of high frame rate technology and length of the film, writing "After 170 minutes, I felt that I had had enough of a pretty good thing. The trilogy will test the stamina of the non-believers, and many might feel ... that the traditional filmic look of Lord of the Rings was better." Richard Lawson from The Atlantic Wire commented on the film's "video game"-like visual effects, saying "this is a dismally unattractive movie, featuring too many shots that I'm sure were lovely at some point but are now ruined and chintzified by the terrible technology monster."
Matthew Leyland of Total Film gave the film a five-star rating and said that it is "Charming, spectacular, technically audacious… in short, everything you expect from a Peter Jackson movie. A feeling of familiarity does take hold in places, but this is an epically entertaining first course." Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine awarded the film three stars out of four and called it "The first of an arguably gratuitous three-part cine-extravaganza." Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter said that "Jackson and his colleagues have created a purist's delight… [And leads to] an undeniably exciting, action-packed climax." McCarthy did however think that "Though there are elements in this new film that are as spectacular as much of the Rings trilogy was… there is much that is flat-footed and tedious as well, especially in the early going." Kate Muir of The Times gave the film four out of five stars, saying Martin Freeman "perks up" the film as Bilbo Baggins and that Jackson's use of 48 frames per second 3D technology gives the film "lurid clarity". Dan Jolin of Empire gave the film four out of five stars and thought "The Hobbit plays younger and lighter than Fellowship and its follow-ups, but does right by the faithful and has a strength in Martin Freeman's Bilbo that may yet see this trilogy measure up to the last one" and he stated that "There is treasure here".
The film received three Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling as well as praise from critics organization Broadcast Film Critics Association and from critics groups, such as the Houston Film Critics Society, Phoenix Film Critics Society and Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association. The film's team won an Academy Scientific and Technical Award—the Scientific and Engineering Award for inventing a technique which has made huge advances in bringing to life computer-generated characters such as Gollum in the film to the screen. In January 2013, it was announced The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was nominated in the Best Live Action Motion Picture category at the Cinema Audio Society Awards, awarded on 16 February.
An Unexpected Journey led the nominations at the 39th Saturn Awards with nine, more than The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring which earned eight nominations at the time of its release. These nominations included Best Director (Peter Jackson's eleventh Saturn Award nomination), Best Actor for Martin Freeman, Best Supporting Actor for Ian McKellen (his third nomination for playing Gandalf) and Best Music for Howard Shore. It won Best Production Design for Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent and Simon Bright.
An Unexpected Journey also earned five nominations at the 18th Empire Awards, winning in two categories, Best Actor for Martin Freeman and Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Film. It also earned two nominations at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards in the categories Best Scared-as-S**t Performance and Best Hero for Martin Freeman. Freeman won the latter award for his performance. It has gathered 6 nominations at the 2013 SFX Awards, including Best Film, Best Director for Peter Jackson and four acting nominations.