The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Andy Serkis.
IN creating The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, one of the many challenges facing the writing/producing team of Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh was deciding what to leave out of Tolkien's hefty tomes.
With The Hobbit, the problem is the opposite. The novel is comparatively slim and childish, which made the idea of turning it into a trilogy initially perplexing.
But despite being slow to get going and having a generally overlong first act, the padding-out of the story seems to work, particularly in turning the simplistic tone of the book into a meaty film that matches the vibe of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
For those who've never read the book or don't know their Sauron from their Saruman, this is the tale of a hobbit (like a dwarf but smaller) named Bilbo Baggins (Freeman), who is selected by the wizard Gandalf (McKellan) to join a band of 13 dwarves in their quest to reclaim their mountain kingdom from an evil dragon named Smaug.
For those who have read the book, An Unexpected Journey covers the first six chapters of The Hobbit's 19.
There are a couple of issues in the book that the film struggles to address, notably why Gandalf chooses Bilbo for this incredibly dangerous adventure when it's evident that Bilbo is like most hobbits - that is, decidedly unadventurous and likely to get killed rather quickly. The film attempts to explain Gandalf's potentially mean-spirited choice in a way that's only slightly less flippant than Tolkien's explanations, but it remains a sticking point considering the entire impetus of the story hinges it.
Bilbo accepting the mission is equally unlikely in terms of plot, and it's for this reason that the film seems to take it's sweet time to get going, as Bilbo has to first appear content in his home life, then deal with a raucous company of dwarves, and then decide, screw it, he does want to go on an adventure after all.
Throw in a couple of dwarfish songs, a couple of flashbacks, and a dozen introductions, and An Unexpected Journey is slower out of the gates than a three-legged donkey.
But it gets better, and fans won't mind this slowburn beginning because, hey, it's Middle Earth, and returning to this hallowed fantasy realm is like coming home for Christmas.
Once An Unexpected Journey gets going, it's a rollicking good time. The high-paced set pieces are thrilling and character-building, particularly for Bilbo, and the tone sits perfectly with that of the previously made trilogy.
Peter Jackson's flair for comedy is present again, as is his knack for horror. The villains - Azog The Defiler (a character transplanted from Tolkien's extensive appendices) and the gruesome-looking Goblin King (voiced wonderfully by Barry Humphries) - are certainly scary, and Jackson's not afraid of a few beheadings and disembowellings.
CG effects have come a long way since Jackson's last visit to Middle Earth and he relies on digital trickery a lot more here, which works well, although does make some action scenes look a bit like a video game, notably the escape from the Goblin King.
But most of this nitpicking. The movie is thoroughly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud funny, laced with stunning action sequences, and boasts great performances, especially from McKellan and Freeman, with the latter give a charmingly bumbling Britishness to Bilbo.
Despite a slow start and some potentially unnecessary cameos, An Unexpected Journey succeeds in what it sets out to do - turn the first section of a kids book into a film worthy of sitting alongside the greatest cinematic trilogy of the '00s.