Visual feast definitely worth a look

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (M)

No other film has arrived in cinemas this year with as many questions running along behind it as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Questions like: Is it as good as The Lord of the Rings movies? Does Martin Freeman make a good Hobbit?

Will the decision to turn one book into three films make the whole thing feel padded?

How far have Weta's digital effects come since The Return of the King? What, if anything, will 3D add to the proceedings? Do the punters still care about hobbits and wizards?

Does Peter Jackson still have his Middle Earth mojo? And, finally, how do movies shot at 48 frames per second look compared with ones shot at half that speed?

The Hobbit takes place 60 years before The Lord of the Rings and stars Freeman of The Office fame as Bilbo Baggins, the role played by Ian Holm in the first trilogy.

Bilbo is quietly enjoying life in The Shire one day when Gandalf the Wizard, again played by Ian McKellen, turns up and manipulates him into having a bunch of dwarves over for dinner.

With the help of Gandalf, the dwarves are on a mission to get their mountain home back from a nasty dragon.

Gandalf wants Bilbo to join them but, being a creature of comfort, he takes some convincing.

After initially declining, the promise of adventure proves too tempting and before long Bilbo is racing out the door to join them.

Much excitement involving elves, orcs, goblins, trolls and other critters, including Gollum, follows.

The first instalment of The Hobbit may lack the freshness of The Lord of the Rings but visually it's an incredibly rich experience.

As impressive as the first films were, the tricks learnt making them, combined with advances in technology, mean The Hobbit is technically a big step up from what came before.

In fact, some of it has to be seen to be believed.

For my liking the first hour is way too slow but once the pace picks up, the drama comes thick and fast along with plenty of humour, stupendous sights, impressive set pieces and a cracker of an encounter with Gollum.

Acting-wise, Freeman makes a fine hobbit; the kind that mercifully doesn't feel the need to go "Oh, Gandalf!" every 10 minutes like Elijah Wood did in the LOTR.

The great McKellen picks up where he left off and Richard Armitage makes a good first impression as the king of the dwarves. Best of all, though, is Andy Serkis once again playing Gollum through the miracle of motion capture technology. The creepy little guy is a wonderful, fascinating and compelling character.

Speaking of technology, the use of 3D and the high frame rate make The Hobbit visually the most groundbreaking film since Avatar. Some say 48 frames per second makes everything look too real and leaves movies looking like actors on a set rather than, well, a movie.

And while it does occasionally make The Hobbit look like the most expensive movie ever made with a second-hand video camera, for the most part, it creates a sensation of immersion that we simply haven't seen before.

In fact, I found myself getting quite lost in Gandalf's beard.

As far as the other questions go: from the way people are charging into cinemas worldwide, clearly they haven't had enough of Middle Earth and yes, Sir Peter's Middle Earth mojo is still pumping.

Finally, don't let those critics out there who are pouring cold water on The Hobbit put you off. The film is a major cinematic event, a huge achievement and very entertaining.

Bottom line: amazing to look at and lots of fun.

The Marlborough Express