There's a scene early on in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey where thrill-shirker Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) gets some advice from wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) that holds as much relevance for the audience as the pint-sized hero. As Bilbo wrestles with the dilemma of whether to stay put at home or go on an epic adventure, Gandalf warns him that things won't be the same if he chooses the latter. If you're someone whose Christmases in 2001, 2002 and 2003 revolved around director Peter Jackson and the presents he brought to multiplexes, then you're expecting that your Yuletide 2012 return will repeat - or indeed surpass - those thrills and twists. Well, ...An Unexpected Journey isn't as strong or as special as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but you'll still leave the cinema convinced that they can fix the shortcomings in time for next December's second instalment. If you weren't a fan first time 'round nothing will change after this.
Taking place 60 years before the events in The Lord of the Rings, ... An Unexpected Journey throws Bilbo, Gandalf and a baker's (dirty) dozen called The Company of Dwarves together on the Middle-earth equivalent of a heist job-come-treasure hunt. Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Nori, Ori Gloin, Oin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and leader Thorin Oakenshield have enlisted the services of hobbit and wizard as they try to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Thorin doesn't reckon Bilbo can transform himself from home bird to burglar; his men seem too unruly and reckless a bunch to complete the mission; Gandalf is troubled by some strange occurrences and all the while, waiting further up the trail, is Bilbo's destiny with a band of gold...
Director Jackson has intimated that, while having its share of dark moments, ...An Unexpected Journey has more for children than its 'predecessors'. But both kids and adults alike may find themselves either saying or thinking, 'I'm bored' as this epic unfolds. The movie takes a long time to get going and the amount of exposition is more confusing and frustrating than helpful - great, perhaps, for the purists but a bit much for those of us who still haven't kept our promises to read the book(s). And while there's been plenty of brouhaha about the shooting of the film in 3D at 48 frames per second, you'll get used to it far quicker than the pacing in the first half. Thankfully, the second half - Goblins, Orcs, Wargs and Gollum - is a big improvement in terms of speed and set-pieces.
Once again, Jackson and his Weta colleagues have excelled at creating worlds within a world, but the most impressive thing about ...An Unexpected Journey turns out not to be the scale or technology, but two of the performances. Perfectly cast as the reluctant hero, Freeman's evolution into a bona fide leading man rescues the story on a number of occasions when it's in danger of sinking into a swamp. His encounter with Gollum (surely an Oscar nod this time for Andy Serkis) is the best scene by a Misty Mountain mile and how he mixes the drama and comedy bodes well for the future. So, too, does his on-screen chemistry with Armitage, who has graduated from TV totty to big screen contender as Thorin Oakenshield, the hero it's not too easy to like. With more Smaug savagery and the Battle of Five Armies to come, we can expect plenty more bloodshed and bromance, and when Bilbo says, "I do believe the worst is behind us" let's assume he's referring to the script.
Same time next year, then.