Director Peter Jackson has faced accusations of sophomore arrogance for daring to expand The Hobbit beyond the pages of the beloved source book.
REVIEW: Who, the internet pundits wail, does this Jackson guy think he is with his fancy frame rates and his mega budget trilogies?
After seeing The Hobbit: And Unexpected Journey, the answer is clearly a bloke with parts of steel - because the film is deftly controlled chaos of the most charming kind, a wild ride of fantasy delight.
Homely hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is coaxed into joining a ragged band of Dwarves set on reclaiming their stolen kingdom. They have a map, a key, a wizard (Honorary Kiwi Sir Ian Mckellen reprising his role as Gandafl) and the iron clad will to oust the dragon usurper, Smaug, who turned them out of their mountain home many years before.
Along the way Bilbo must hold his own among the xenophobic dwarves, led by bitter prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage taking up the Aragorn-esque heroic mantle with ease), against a slew of grim and grizzly foe, pitting his wits against thick skulled Trolls and a certain cave dwelling creeper with an eye for precious things, to prove his worth to the company.
Jackson knows a thing or two about being a fan, and he clearly had The Lord of the Rings enthusiasts at the front of his mind while putting this escapade together. Nods to fan favourite moments from the first trilogy a bound - From Frodo (Elijah Wood) popping up in the opening scenes to a familiar fan-beloved face in fair Rivendell. But An Unexpected Journey is so much more than an homage to Jackson's past glory or our own enthusiasm for Middle-earth.
The film has the duel task of setting up not only the current prequel but the trilogy we already know, and it handles it perfectly. With well crafted, charming characters and a ripping pace once they're on the road, the episodic nature of the story keeps the pressure on and fairly blows through the three hour running time - it felt more like an hour and a half - while delivering a shed load of history and setting up a slew of new faces.
A low note is possibly the roller coaster ride of dwarfish exposition before the real story starts, but it's a necessary introduction to the world of the hobbit, one which strikes a balance between light-hearted tone of its children's book origins and darker aspects of the story to follow.
It should be a difficult balance to maintain, but Freeman's Bilbo is the key, his fish-out-of-water Everyman leading us through the zanier set pieces and more gruesome moments with equal aplomb.
This is no child's film, though - heads and other appendages roll, guts are spilled and the Jackson-introduced orc menace Azog (Manu Bennett) is foully terrifying. There's a great deal of pathos, particularly in Bilbo's encounter with Gollum (Andy 'Give him all the Oscars now' Serkis) which is stunning, and funny, too. In fact, it was everything I could have wanted from a first instalment, with added gorgeous elvish king cameos and dragons.
Finally, yes, the vertigo inducing turns through the dwarves' mountain stronghold are a stomach heaving introduction to the higher frame rate combined with 3D. But it is unlike anything you've seen before - closer to one of those mega-screen thrill ride films from the 70s than the flashy 3D we've had in recent years.
And while the depth and clarity of the images is disconcerting at first, by the time Gandalf arrives on screen to whisk young Bilbo off on adventure it'll be the last thing on your mind.
If you want a wild ride - and let's face it, who doesn't? - The Hobbit does not disappoint.
* The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens nationwide December 12.
- Fairfax Media