I have a confession to make. When Peter Jackson kicked off his Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was to my eight year-old self what Irish boy bands are to Louis Walsh; pure brilliance. It could have been terrible, but thankfully wasn't, which meant I'd always sort of assumed he'd go on and make a film for The Hobbit too, once the hype had died down a bit.
The Hobbit, it must be noted, reads rather differently to the other Tolkien books. It's much easier to read, shorter in length, and comes across as more of a fairy tale than a saga. Everything is less epic and more intimate - it's not so much a great war as a colossal treasure hunt.
The film more or less suits this notion, as most of the action revolves around the thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield and their burglar, Bilbo Baggins. The latter is played superbly by Martin Freeman, who reinforces Bilbo as a fish-out-of-water-type hero with nothing but his own wits to keep himself steady.
Other acting highlights include Andy Serkis as Gollum- who manages to cram all of the humor and lingering menace we'd seen in LOTR into one scene of delightful madness -and Ian McKellen's touching portrayal of Gandalf, who provides the feel-good line of the year. Each of the dwarves has something new to offer, whether it's James Nesbitt as the everyman Bofur or Ken Stott as the paternal Balin, and it's a welcome reprieve from the usual sort of modern hero who tends to have the personality of a bored greyhound.
In terms of plot, there will inevitably be certain flaws only bookworms will care about, because films never stick completely to the books they're based on.This one certainly doesn't. The book is smaller than the Fellowship of The Ring alone, and the latter wasn't divided into three parts - as a result, Jackson has had to flesh the film out with a few of his own ideas. Most of these work pretty well, in fairness to him, although it does take away some of the book's original charm when you've got so many dramatic set pieces on show.
These undoubtedly make the film's controversial 48 frame-rate shine, however, providing the sort of moments you replay in your head over and over again. My personal favorite comes right near the start, when we are introduced to the dragon Smaug, the dwarves of Erebor, a small boy holding a bow and a suitably amazing dwavern city.
Other additions include certain characters having bigger roles than they do in the book, much as Haldir did in The Two Towers. Again, these are well-judged; the book, for instance, features few major female characters, so it was perfectly apt for Galadriel to appear in a role that suited both her character and the timeline of the novel. Radagast the Brown is another welcome addition, after failing to get even a mention in Jackson's previous trilogy.
It's also worth saying how nice panoramic shots of the countryside look through the new cameras. I'm not talking about forlorn English meadows here; I'm talking vast swathes of lonely mountainside, the sort of terrain that was seemingly designed by a bunch of omnipotent nerds as somewhere to relax and think about dragons for all eternity.
As it stands, then, The Hobbit is something of a wonder. On one hand, it's an endearingly unique fantasy romp that will impress fans with it's choice of casting and win over the rest with a mix of charm and stunning visual pieces.
On the other, not only is it around 170 minutes long, it's also a bit of a nightmare thinking how Jackson will top this with the next two installments.
Unexpected sounds about right.