Director: Peter Jackson; Screenwriter: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro; Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett; Running time: 169 mins; Certificate: 12A
Structurally, Peter Jackson's long-awaited return to Middle-earth is so remarkably close to his first outing in Fellowship of the Ring that you sense, subconsciously or otherwise, that he has intentionally used that beloved adaptation as a blueprint. Light-hearted first act in the Shire, check. Our band of heroes menaced by fantasy beasties the first night they set up camp, check. Stop-off in Rivendell for some Elvish exposition, check. If not for the spoiler risk, we could go on.
The comparison begins and ends with this familiar structure, which is taken directly from Tolkien's significantly shorter novel but has been padded out in several places to more closely mirror the rhythm and scope of Fellowship. Anyone expecting a story as rich and complex as Rings will be disappointed, and frankly, anyone expecting that only has themselves to blame - The Hobbit is manifestly a children's book, and its big-screen incarnation is an essentially lightweight adventure, with only a handful of really developed characters and a series of obstacles in place of an actual villain.
The latter will change in the next two films with the introduction of thieving dragon Smaug and black magic-botherer The Necromancer (both only glimpsed here). In all likelihood, the world of Middle-earth will shift gradually towards the darker one seen in Rings, becoming less cosy and more compromised along with Martin Freeman's soulful Bilbo. As a straightfoward first chapter, though, this is big-hearted and immaculately detailed stuff.
But once Ian McKellen's Gandalf arrives in the Shire, determined to coax the unadventurous Bilbo to come along on a potentially dangerous quest to recover stolen treasure from a dragon, you feel you're in safe hands. McKellen is as charmingly twinkly in the role as ever, while it's immediately clear that Freeman has a firm and very likable handle on Bilbo, grounding much of the early broad humour with dry, good-natured resignation.
Unsurprisingly, the dwarves themselves are pretty much interchangeable, never making for anything like as compelling a company as the Fellowship. The main exception is Richard Armitage's stern Thorin, who's possessed by the quest and thoroughly unconvinced by the timid Bilbo.
Like Elijah Wood's Frodo before him, there's plenty of moments where Bilbo is in physical peril, but since we know he survives, the real stakes of the film have to lie elsewhere. It's here that Freeman's likability is so important, because it means we really care about the prospect of his soul not surviving the quest. "If you do come back, you will not be the same," Gandalf warns, and an early glimpse of Ian Holm reminds the audience just how changed he ends up being.
Emotionally rewarding, imaginatively detailed and made with a genuine sense of joy, the first Hobbit chapter succeeds despite its structural and formatting mis-steps. Watch it in good old 2D, and in good old 24fps - all the better to enjoy Jackson's painstakingly crafted world and Freeman's winning, heartfelt lead turn.