It's taken so long - even longer than Frodo's journey to Mount Doom it seems. But finally after what seemed like insurmountable odds, the first instalment of The Hobbit has arrived. Peter Jackson, the director, co-writer and all-round orchestrator of things that are cinematic Tolkien, once again took up the directoral reins after chosen director Del Torro was forced to bail after all the complications involving legal rights and the fall of MGM kept pushing back the shoots starting date. The Hobbit was facing a fate not unlike the one that befell Bond's Skyfall. That however, benefited from the delay with more time to prep the adventure.
Fate though, it seems, has given Jackson the chance to finish what he started back in 2001 with The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. So, the question here is: has he pulled another success out of the bag or has his obvious love for Tolkien blinded him to the level of over-indulgence? Well my precious...
Sequels. Prequels. Audiences want more of the same but something different as well - all at the same time. Jackson's first of the now scheduled three forays into the story of Bilbo Baggins' adventure away from The Shire amazingly manages to pull off both of these polar opposites.
The "more of the same" aspect sees a remarkably similar structuring to Fellowship Of The Ring. We are given all the required back story via a prologue monologue - this time it's Ian Holms' older Bilbo rather than eternally beautiful Cate Blanchett's Galadriel imparting the relevant history. Nearly three hours later we then have the hero shot as the gallant band observe their destination from quite afar - both times a mountain in the distance with the distinct message to both them and the audience that there is still yet a long way to go... two films worth to be precise. Then, finally, a quick shot of an eye that will definitely cause the band of heroes much trouble when it sees them, despite their belief that "the worst is behind them."
Inbetween these two momentous bookends, there is much to see, and marvel at, along with breath-holding and laughter. Infact, there is quite alot of laughter to be had. The story of The Hobbit was one aimed more at the younger reader whilst the lengthy gap between that and it's sequel-of-sorts - The Lord Of The Rings - helped to create an overall more maturer and darker tone within its pages. These have been accurately reflected here with Jackson's body of work concerning Tolkien's works.. His Hobbit is an altogether more upbeat and jolly affair. Most of this comes from the larger-in-numbers main cast and all their interactions with one another - after all, as Gandalf says, "they're quite a merry gathering." It's this lightness that gives those seasoned viewers the something "different" to make the time, effort and money that they have spent to view The Hobbit all the more worthwhile.
With this lighter, more smile-inducing tone, there are still sequences that feel like a distinct parallel to its "60 years" later continuation. Fellowship.. had the chase and escape through the mines of Moria whilst here there is a just as frantic run through the hordes of goblins deep underground in Goblin Town. The younger, more agile Gandalf has a more "hands on" approach here than he did in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, with some nifty moves involving his wizards staff which could easily place him in a Star Wars prequel if they gave him a lightsaber to wield instead.
This, however is not Gandalf's tale - it belongs squarely with Bilbo and thusly with Freeman who was always first choice for the role. Some, and only a few, may find it hard to reconcile with Tim from The Office as the main man/hobbit in a full-on fantasy epic that cost and will make back millions of dollars, but the simple truth of the matter is that just as Gandalf did, Jackson and Del Torro chose wisely. Freeman's "down to (Middle) earthiness"- pun intended - and his slight self-depreciating manner make him to easy to connect with and then of course, root and care for. When he finally gets the chance to step up to the plate and prove to the doubting leader of the Dwarves that he does belong amongst them of their dangerous quest, you'd be forgiven for wanting to punch the air with delight and whoop for joy.
If Freeman carries the weight of the film upon his shoulders, it is Jackson's regular cohort Serkis, that helps deliver the films best sequence - the most satisfying, funny and creepy one possibly of all of the Middle Earth's stories so far. The battle of riddles between Serkis' Gollum and Freeman's Bilbo deep in the mountain is in turns laugh-out-loud funny then disturbingly chilling as Gollum decides that he's had enough of games and wants feeding as "we'ves never tried hobbits'."
There has been talk and backlash that the film suffers from excessive filling ever since the announcement that the two films would become three and that there is unnecessary information put in just to help them make us see a trilogy rather than a duo. Nonsense. All information here helps to bridge the gap that would make the linking of these films with the existing ones that much more fluid and understandable. Even if you disagree, here the time and the journey simply flies by leaving you once again on that in equal parts great but annoying cliffhanger.
Mr Baggins, we look forward to the rest of your journey, there and back again.
UK release date: 14.12.12