In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien begins "This tale grew in the telling..." So it has been with the film of The Hobbit - originally conceived as two films, one of the The Hobbit and a second to bridge the gap to the Lord of the Rings - it morphed into two films telling the story in Tolkien's book but drawing on his additional material before being further divided to create a new trilogy.
Throughout this process, and particularly from when Peter Jackson took the helm after the departure of Guillermo del Toro, I have awaited the films with great anticipation, a little trepidation and with immense trust the Jackson could repeat what he had achieved with Lord of the Rings.
The main problem that Jackson had was that the tone of The Hobbit is completely different to that of The Lord of the Rings, and vastly different from the version of Middle Earth created for the films of the latter. The first challenge was to tell this tale but to make it of a piece with the LotR trilogy.
It is desire that has led to the expansion of the films to a trilogy - and having seen the first, one can more easily understand the shape of the remaining two films and the likely material that will be covered... Their names, too, are a help in this regard: The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again. But that, perhaps is for another day: what of An Unexpected Journey?
Jackson begins with "old" Bilbo (Ian Holm) setting out to write his memoirs - and straightaway we're afforded the story of the Lonely Mountain and the exile of the Dwarves* following the coming of the dragon; setting the scene for the appearance of the Dwarves and the quest that Bilbo became a part of.
This introduction, and the cameo appearance of Elijah Wood as Frodo, are set immediately prior to the "Long Expected Party" at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring". We are then transported back 60 years to when the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meets Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the company of the Dwarves...
I shall not, despite the wide knowledge of the book, give away too much of the plot. Instead, I shall restrict myself to a few observations.
First, as a fanboy, I am not without reservations at elements of the changes that Jackson has made to the story as related in the book and accompanying annals. In particular, the introduction of Azog (an Orc Chief) and the sub-plot that will, I'm sure, be present throughout the three films. However, if I divorce myself from the book, this device is probably understandable.
An ensemble cast of 13 Dwarves, a Hobbit and a Wizard could be unweildy and, even though all the Dwarves have been given their own characteristics and idiosycrities, Jackson has sensibly pared things back to a central core of the haughty Thorin (Richard Armitage), Wise Balin (Ken Stott) and the youthful Fili and Kili (Dean O'Gorman and Aidan Turner) as well as Gandalf and Bilbo.
Martin Freeman captures the essence of Bilbo and Armitage is excellent as Thorin (pronounced throughout as Thorin (the way I always read it) and not as T-orin, which I believe is more correct). McKellen is, once again great as Gandalf and Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee are all on hand to reprise their roles from the Lord of the Rings.
Also reprising his role from those films is Andy Serkis as Gollum and, for me, he was a scene-stealer. The scene in which he and Bilbo compete in a game of riddles was electrifying.
Jackson loves his battle scenes and the film is liberally sprinkled with these - but the guts of the story remain, albeit with tweaks to make them more cinematic. He is also mindful that, even where departing from the original in detail, to make spoken or visual references to source. Bilbo's buttons may not burst from his waistcoat as he exits through a door being closed by goblins, for example, but they do burst off all the same. Likewise, reference is made to havig moved out of the frying pan and into the fire - a chapter title in the novel.
It's not all swords and arrows either - there are moments of light relief provided too. One laugh out loud moment happened when some of the dwarves buried treasure found in the Troll cave - cue Glóin: "We're making a long term deposit". Sylvestor McCoy as Radagast the Brown also lightens the mood, playing the role of the madcap naturalist and wizard with a zany energy and eccentricity.
It won't be to everyone's cup of tea, but it should appeal to those who liked the Lord of the Rings on film. And, fanboy quibbles aside, it should also appeal to lovers of the book... Now, the wait for the next film commences.
*I have used Tolkien's preferred spelling "Dwarves" throughout, rather than the "correct" English of "Dwarfs".
**This review was of the "normal" 3D version - I have yet to see the High Frequency 3D version although I shall, amongst many other screenings no doubt!