There were plenty of questions that caused fear for the coming of The Hobbit. Why did Guillermo del Toro abandon the project? How does one little children's book merit three friggin three-hour movies? Why have so many The Lord of the Rings characters who weren't in The Hobbit been shoved into the film?
And yet it turns out that one aspect not only obliterates any reservations, but makes you feel silly for ever having them. The reason: Peter Jackson.
Spectacular in every conceivable fashion, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shows the steady, inspired hand of its creator in every frame. On top of being one of the world's most formidable filmmakers, Jackson lives and breathes Tolkien, and his adaptations of the material feel like pure, undiluted inspiration.
A jubilant adaptation that not only improves on the source material but adds much to it, the film whets appetites for the latter two legs of the saga while telling a thrilling and complete story in its own right.
Methodical and deliberate, the story blossoms with a self-assured, confident pace. The setup, in which wizard Gandalf recruits the unwilling hobbit Bilbo into helping a band of dwarfs reclaim their dragon-ravaged homeland, has the air of the wedding scene early on in The Deer Hunter. Song and spirit are shared, belying the hard, soul-shifting road that lay ahead. Jackson trots out a new series of largely unfamiliar protagonists, making it easy to buy in and care about them as individuals. When they face hardships on the road to redemption, the pathos is palable.
The near decade that has passed since the last of Jackson's LOTR trilogy hit theaters have been kind to the effects department, spawning gorgeously detailed scenery and monsters that move and react with considerable rate. Much has been made about the movie's increased framerate, but if anything it enhances the digital palate that Jackson's effects team utilizes.
None of the technical wizardry would matter, though, unless the acting was up to par. And the cast, led by Martin Freeman in the title role, as well as the character actors who tackle the parts of his dwarf confederates, are all superb. The chemistry among the dwarfs feels rich and lived-in, while Freeman's meek, displaced turn hits just the right notes. And it's tough to expect anything than shimmering brilliance from the remarkable Andy Serkis, who inhabits the bonkers, royal we-commandeering mind of Gollum.
Like that sad, bug-eyed creature, moviegoers may not have realized how much they missed movies like this onscreen in the past several years. Yet we now have our precious back in hand, and here's to two more years of wild, sure-to-be-met expectations of supreme Tolkien mastery.
Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis. Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Jackson. Rated PG-13. 169 minutes.