THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Unexpected, indeed. Peter Jackson's take on J.R.R. Tolkien's famous children's tale draws on the darkness of The Lord of the Rings for what is eventually a pulsating fantasy adventure.
The first instalment of the director's new Middle-earth trilogy follows a comfort-loving hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who joins a company of dwarves on an adventure to reclaim their kingdom.
While the movie had its world premiere in New Zealand last week, the Hollywood studio Warner Bros required critics to hold back reviews until after the American premiere. But concerns that the move reflected a lack of confidence in the movie nine years after the triumphant The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King are unfounded.
A relatively slim and lightly comedic novel, The Hobbit takes place 60 years earlier than The Lord of the Rings.
Jackson brings the darker vision of The Lord of the Rings into Bilbo's world in An Unexpected Journey, with brutal battles, top-class creatures and spectacular landscapes over a packed 160-plus minutes.
But the movie takes time to warm up as the elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), harks back to his earlier adventures in the company of Frodo (Elijah Wood).
Flashing back 60 years, it shows the first chaotic meeting between the younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the 13 dwarves who land on his doorstep in the Shire.
When they set out on an epic adventure organised by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), seeking to reclaim the dwarves' treasure guarded by a dragon named Smaug, they quickly run into threats from goblins, wargs and other dangerous creatures.
Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have built on the novel by developing lightly sketched characters and drawing on material from Tolkien's notes for a possible revision.
As he needs to be at the heart of the movie, Freeman, best known for his roles in The Office, Love Actually and Sherlock, makes an appealing Bilbo, and there are solid performances by Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Richard Armitage as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield and Sylvester McCoy as the eccentric wizard Radagast.
The battles are ferocious and a rousing finale sets up the second instalment in a year's time.
While there is no denying the epic ambition behind the new trilogy, the jury is out on Jackson's innovation in shooting the movie at 48-frames-a-second – rather than the traditional 24 frames – in 3D.
The high-definition image is sharp, almost startlingly so initially, but the format seems to distance the characters from the landscape.
There are moments when it feels like An Unexpected Journey was shot on a giant soundstage with deliberately artificial backdrops, although other viewers at the same screening report settling in to the movie quickly and not being troubled by the format.
If it wins acceptance, James Cameron plans to shoot Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 in the same fashion, believing it resolves the technical problems that can blight 3D movies.
But the majority of cinemas will show An Unexpected Journey at 24-frames-a-second when it opens – on Boxing Day in Australia – which will give viewers an entirely different experience of the movie.
So how will Tolkien enthusiasts feel about Jackson's new adventure in Middle-earth?
Some fans may resent the liberties with the novel, some might not go for Radagast's eccentricities, but An Unexpected Journey has so many pay-offs that most are likely to re-engage with the saga.
Reaching just a third of the way through Tolkien's novel, Jackson has given himself room to flesh out the story over the next two instalments.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released on December 26