After the conclusion of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy back in 2003, it seemed that the fantasy franchise had seen its last day. Cut to almost a decade later and Peter Jackson has succeeded in bringing us a much-anticipated fourth dose of Middle Earth with a further two instalments planned for 2013 and 2014. So far, the road to making The Hobbit trilogy has been less than smooth. Jackson originally intended Guillermo Del Torro to direct, but after years of delays and squabbles with studio bosses over the trilogy's eye-watering budget (around $400 million in total), the Pan's Labyrinth director dropped out in 2010 and Jackson took the helm.
The Hobbit: An unexpected Journey, the first instalment of the trilogy, picks up a few decades before The Lord Of The Rings. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the homely hobbit, is torn from his quiet comforts in The Shire when called upon by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to lead a motley crew of 13 dwarfs on a treacherous quest to defeat the dragon Smaug and recover the Lonely Mountain.
So, let's start with the obvious: Although it shares much of the same DNA, this is no Lord of the Rings. It's a little softer around the edges and is marked by a lighter tone and tempo. It's impossible to watch An Unexpected Journey without feeling that the film is a slightly pale imitation of its brother trilogy, and the return of previous cast members including Cate Blanchet, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis as Gollum do little to alleviate the sense that the film is very much a prequel to the real action.
That said, there is still plenty to enjoy. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit thrown into an adventure against his will, as is Simon Armitage playing Thorin the Dwarf King. After the initial set-up, the film follows a rip-roaring, action-packed pace and there is no shortage of scrapes with goblins, orcs and wargs to keep the story moving.
An Unexpected Journey also offers an unparalleled visual spectacle. Aside from showcasing the latest in 3D technology, Jackson pioneered the use of RED digital cameras to achieve a beautifully crisp picture and the genuinely thrilling visual effects that have become the hallmark of Weta digital.
When The Hobbit (a relatively short children's book) was first announced as a trilogy, there were suspicions that financial motivations would lead to a watered-down story, unfeasibly spread over three films. Remarkably, in this first installment, Jackson and his co-writers Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh have successfully avoided overstretching the original narrative, while establishing a plethora of new (and old) characters. It still remains to be seen whether the subsequent installments will be able to sustain the pace and meet the high bar that Jackson has set.
The mighty Dwarvish stronghold at the base of the Misty Mountain has been invaded by the vicious and unforgiving Dragon Smaug, driving the Dwarves from their ancestral home. When a band of Dwarves led by Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) begin a quest to vanquish the fire breathing menace from its occupation they enlist the help of Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan) and a Hobbit (Martin Freeman).
Filmmaker Peter Jackson's epic visual brush strokes are back and New Zealand's sublime natural beauty is once again on show. Seeing the sun drenched rolling hills of Hobbiton is like a cinematic opiate. This is an expansive exploratory effort with the bounds of the aesthetic he forged in the last trilogy. Despite the fantastical elements, Jackson anchors the cast to the emotional core of the work and once again extracts very good performances. There's an early highlight in how Jackson seamlessly transforms Tolkien's written tunes into a sombre ballad, loaded with the struggle that's to follow.
The Hobbit is deceptively named. Instead of three films that are unnecessarily stretching the notably small novel, screenwriters Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo Del Toro have used Tolkien�s vast repositories of ancillary stories that flesh out Middle Earth's history prior to Fellowship and stitched them into the world's most iconic literary prequel. As we inhabit Bilbo's outsider perspective, there's a notable detachment from his Dwarvish companions. This is in stark contrast to The Fellowship of the Ring's, well fellowship. The core hobbits (Frodo [Elijah Wood], Sam [Sean Astin], Merry and Pippin) under the fond gaze of Gandalf, and fierce protection of Aragorn (Vigo Mortenson) have a flourishing relationship and we get to know the characters deeply. In HAUJ the sheltered, diminutive quest group is in awe of the towering world around them. The beauty of Rivendell, the quaint quiet of Hobbiton, and the storm giants hurling hill sized boulders at each other it's only once they enter the labyrinthine cave systems the characters growth in stature and personality. While there are some momentary lapses into the laborious where the story feels as if it's laying the foundations of the two following films; the running time all but flies by.
McKellan effortlessly cloaks himself in Gandalf the Grey once again; he's got the gravitas to elevate the material and to set a performance standard for those new to the franchise. Martin Freeman's Bilbo is a much more stubborn loner and generally subdued hobbit than his nephew. He's struggling to understand his role in this quest, and he gives enough of a nod toward his future self that you feel the character's in great hands. And the visually luscious offering that will leave you speechless is the meeting between Bilbo (Freeman) and Gollum (motion captured performance by Andy Serkis). Witnessing technological leaps even in the last decade during their "game of riddles" is a highlight of the film. Serkis' performance is unbelievably vivid. The WETA graphic artists create a disconcerting level of detail in every tick and miniscule facial gesture beats its own personal best set in the previous trilogy.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey had me with the dulcet melancholy of displaced Dwarves, yearning to be home. It's with an abiding love for the complete works of J.R.R Tolkien that Jackson (and his collaborators) assembles the disparate pieces of his legacy into the beginning of another grand arc. When asked why a Hobbit (Bilbo Baggins) Gandalf answers, "because he gives me courage." I concur.