Before I start, a disclaimer. I love The Lord of the Rings. I love the books, the expanded lore, the films, the music, the invented languages, and, perhaps above all things, the French & Saunders spoof. If I could live barefoot in a hole in the ground with a round door and three quarter length trousers, I would. As a result, my nerdy teenage years and my astronomically high expectations make me a tricky customer for The Hobbit. I have a Middle Earth shaped, idealistic dream that I didn’t want any dodgy sequels taking a dwarven axe to.
And so, after a difficult period of production, with money woes, shifting directors and premature grumblings about frame rates, part one of three, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, has arrived. We are reintroduced to an elderly Bilbo and (digitally) fresh-faced Frodo Baggins moments before the trials and tribulations of LOTR. Bilbo has kept the details of one particular adventure from his young cousin, a tale we are thrust into through a prologue depicting the decimation of the dwarven stronghold of Erebor by the fearsome dragon Smaug. Many years later, a motley group of exiled dwarves arrive at young, stick-in-the-mud Bilbo’s door in search of a burglar to take back their homeland and its treasures, aided by Ian McKellen’s ever charming Gandalf the Grey. Anyone expecting The Lord of the Rings 4: Everything Stays The Same will be in for a shock here. From the offing, the tone of The Hobbit is much lighter. There are songs, a great deal of slapstick and, at first, dwarves that are more Sleepy, Grumpy and Bashful than Gimli son of Gloin. But, ultimately, it works. The moments of comedy, and there are many, are all hits – no misses. Jackson’s writing team, bolstered by Guillermo del Toro, mostly manage to balance the lighter shades with action set pieces and splashes of dread later on, incorporating scenes not found in the novel that make me deliriously keen for parts 2 and 3.
Once the adventure gets going, and with a run time of 2hr 42mins it does take a while, things get rather exciting. The heroes face trolls, orcs, goblins, wargs and enormous stone giants. Each set piece is brilliantly executed, with gasps, applause and the odd ‘Come on Bilbo!’ erupting from the audience at the London IMAX screening I attended. At times it did feel like a different big bad was thrown at the adventurers every 10 minutes, but it just about got away with it, enhanced no end by Howard Shore’s score and the frankly astonishing animation on some of the CGI nasties. Equally dramatic highlights include the sublimely performed riddle sequence between Bilbo and Gollum and absolutely every single frame occupied by elven queen and telepathic babe of babes, Cate Blanchett. Other members of the cast also perform well: Martin Freeman doesn’t need to stray far from familiar territory, Barry ‘Dame Edna’ Humphries is a goitred delight as the underused Goblin King and Sylvester McCoy is a treat as hippie wizard Radagast the Brown. The dwarves also manage the difficult task of differentiating themselves from each other to a large extent.
In IMAX 3D 24fps the film looked stunning in places, with some of the best 3D I’ve seen in any film, and while I didn’t leave with the magic I felt at the end of the LOTR trilogy, I was pleasantly surprised and satisfied by the first part of The Hobbit, certainly enough to plan to go see it again in its intended 48fps format. If you’re not a fan of the original films, the opening may drag a little, but in turn, you may enjoy its more comic touches. However, if you are already on board and don’t try to treat it as something that it’s not, you’ll have a ball.