'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' Review: Peter Jackson Builds Epic Tale Round One Little Man

10/12/2012 13:55 GMT | Updated 09/02/2013 10:12 GMT


'Hobbit' fans can finally breathe out. This week sees the arrival in cinemas around the world of Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth, in a prequel proving that, long before Frodo was a blink in his mother's eye, his elder kinsman Bilbo had an equal taste for adventure equally far from the leafy dales and round doors of the Shire.

The eight years since Jackson collected his 17th Oscar for the Lord of the Rings trilogy has given the director even more effects to play with - this time around it's some 48 frames-per-second wizardry as well as that old staple, 3D.

The result is a hyper-clear spectacle, a bit disconcertingly so on the close-ups of people's faces and almost Telly Tubby-land-esque in the green of the Shire, but stunning when the camera continues its 'Lord of the Rings' love letter around the mountains and valleys of New Zealand. There's been much debate about whether the visual effect will make the film almost too real to enjoy. My tuppence worth is that you soon get used to it and, anyway, since when did visitors to Middle Earth worry too much about the confines of reality?

The story is of how Bilbo Baggins helps a pack of 13 dwarves wander through pits of peril - elves, trolls. storm giants and the like - to reclaim their lost kingdom within the Lonely Mountain. Their leader is Thoren Oakenshield, a magically shrunken-down Richard Armitage, and while he doesn't match Viggo Mortensen for brooding gravitas, he swings his hair, flashes his eyes and looks brooding enough in all the right places.

Some old faces appear too, with Gandalf managing to look younger but still twinkly, the new technology revealing Gollum in all his precious splendour. The scene between Gollum and Bilbo is worth the price of admission alone. Elsewhere, some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, with lots of scene-setting between the battles and, as Peter Jackson predicts, acting Oscars are unlikely.

But nobody visits Middle Earth for a Strasberg workshop, and the battle scenes, forest fights and cityscapes are all, predictably, spectacular, particularly the stunning world of Erebor, where the dwarves made their millions with their piles of glistening gold.

At 166 minutes long, some bits are needlessly extended. Peter Jackson has explained he knew he was never coming back to Middle Earth, hence his determination to pack everything in this final time around, and it can get a bit repetitive - is that the dwarves wandering along a mountain-top ridge one more time? - particularly when you remember this is only the first of three gi-normous epics.

The reason we care, though, is Martin Freeman, as Bilbo Baggins. Holding his own against Gandalf and Gollum, he effortlessly transposes his cheeky humour that has served him so well thus far in his career, as well as some convincing flashes of accidental bravery and compassion along the way. He keeps the whole thing swinging, and proves how right Peter Jackson was to delay filming so that he could build this huge adventure around one little man.

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' Stills