Thankfully, despite its worries, it's more of An Unexpected Triumph!
In 2001 and 2002, Peter Jackson proved to the world that the impossible could be done, producing three iconic film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings novel. Well, having seen the first instalment in Jackson's new prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, upon this very evening, I can truly confirm without a shadow of a doubt that the acclaimed director has done the impossible once again. If it seems completely unlikely that an episodic children's novel with under developed characters can be crafted into a fully-fledged motion picture, then prepare to be amazed, because judging by this, Jackson will prove it can be crafted into three of these!
First and foremost, I must commend fully the casting of Martin Freeman in the role of the titular 'halfling' Bilbo Baggins. As a narrative cipher through which the audience can be introduced to Middle-Earth, Freeman's protagonist is both an alien and empathetic character whose morals are akin to our own yet who is tested to the boundaries of his beliefs over the course of what is just short of a three-hour running time. As I left the cinema earlier this night, I proclaimed that this could well be the 'performance of Martin's career', and if his role in proceedings continues to progress as it does here, then I have every bit of confidence that this will remain the cast. On top of Freeman's casting, each and every cast member here seems perfectly fitted for their roles. Newcomers such as Richard Armitage and Aidan Turner own their characters of Thorin and Fili respectively, while returnees like Ian Holm (Bilbo), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) and Elijah Wood (Frodo) feel right at home reprising their roles as iconic LOTR staplemates.
How well does the condensed narrative work, then? In essence, An Unexpected Journey runs from the novel's opening to the company's escape from a Warg Attack via Eagle-backs in Chapter 6. That said, there's plenty of additional content hinted at the original text and indeed the Rings appendices that's picked up upon here. From an incredible expositionary opening sequence of Smaug's capture of Erebor to Radagast The Brown's rabbit-led antics, and to the meeting of the White Council to discuss the rise of the Necromancer, there's no limit to the fruitful and meaningful expansions which Jackson has used to widen the scale of the narrative. As the plot of this instalment develops, you'll realise more and more that elements of the storyline may well ultimately tie in with the Rings saga further than we had ever expected!
Few would ever worry about the work that goes on beyond the performances and the visionary direction from the LOTR helm. They're right not to, either, since the soundtrack and special effects of An Unexpected Journey are often groundbreaking, evoking elements of Avatar and the Narnia flicks at times while carving their own path too. The now-iconic Misty Mountains theme that we encounter in song early on at Bilbo's house is put to great use here throughout the piece, even if one does begin to wonder whether much like the theme music of the Rings trilogy, this track may wear thin if it's repeatedly used in the concluding two instalments.
What stands as the most impressive attribute to the greatness of this first film is that it's impossible for me to put into words all of its various strengths. For me, the extensive running time felt just right, allowing the empathetic characters to gain emotive depth and resonance that was never really established in the novel, and indeed for the setpieces themselves to breathe. Once you've witnessed the iconic Riddles In The Dark sequence with Gollum, you'll practically want to welcome Andy Serkis yourself onto the Academy Awards stage for Best Motion Capture Actor, seeing as his portrayal of the demented character is at its absolute best here.
With this, his latest endeavour in cinema, then, Peter Jackson has crafted an utter fantasy masterpiece that won't ever be forgotten in the memories of fans or newcomers alike. The 3D work is solid, although I don't know how well the 48 FPS format works at selected cinemas, so I'd recommend sticking with the non-HFR version to be safe. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey marks the first step in another incredible cinematic journey, and just as The Fellowship Of The Ring (5/5) seemed to beckon us onto bigger and braver avenues still eleven years ago, so too does this breathtaking, masterful entry that beckons too towards the future of cinema as a whole. Miss it at your own peril, because it remains one of the greatest films of 2012.