For all the criticism Peter Jackson has drawn surrounding his adaptation of The Hobbit, the director made at least two excellent decisions before filming even began.
Firstly, he moved heaven and earth (or at least a biblical shooting schedule) to secure Martin Freeman as his miniature hero Bilbo Baggins.
Secondly, he pegged day one of filming for the riddle-based confrontation between his leading man and Gollum.
These decisions reaffirm Jackson’s deep and natural understanding of the world he’s working with. Freeman has cut a career from reluctant, reliable Englishmen (Arthur Dent, Watson, now Baggins) that’s beyond typecasting, and more akin to a heavyweight Shakespearean board-treader ticking off the celebrated tragedies.
As Bilbo - the Hamlet of dumpy decency - he justifies Jackson’s trust with a performance that’s approaching perfection: terse and timid as he’s cajoled into adventure, appealingly open and unheroic, but with a quiet, stirring resolve.
He is, you might argue, just being Martin Freeman. But if so he’s doing it really well. And he does it nowhere better than in the film’s retelling of ‘Riddles In The Dark’.
Jackson was right to highlight the scene’s importance - it’s both the bedrock of the larger story of the One Ring which his films bring to life, and the keystone to this particular chapter of that story, resting at the centre of Bilbo’s arc from bewildered passenger to cunning thief.
It’s Bilbo’s turning point, the first time he’s faced danger alone - danger in the wretched, slippery, but somehow loveable shape of Andy Serkis’ Gollum, whose reappearance is a welcome reminder of the quality of the existing trilogy.
The scene is long, unfolding in an unbroken stretch - which is notable in a series that typically cuts between two or three separate strands of action. This gives it a subtle prominence, and allows the parallels between Bilbo and Gollum to grow.
Gollum is also part of the answer to perhaps the biggest question hanging over An Unexpected Journey: “Does it measure up to The Lord Of The Rings?”
Stylistically, the answer is a definite yes - Gollum’s mirrored saucer eyes are just one of the many distinctive images which mark The Hobbit as visually consistent with Jackson’s earlier triptych, the collaborative work of longtime Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee once again forging a world that seems to have been plucked directly from a collective Middle-earth fan subconscious.
The old scale is here, too - in fact the film begins with a thumping backstory battle scene told through a familiar combination of sweeping pans and kinetic glimpses of clashing armies. It’s a cause for immediate relief: we’re back.
A thornier issue is whether The Hobbit has the heft to stand alongside its literary successor. The small children’s book is full of fancy and comedy where The Lord Of The Rings is an epic of good and evil.
The logic of Hollywood sequels makes scaling down an impossibility, and so The Hobbit has grown - not just into three films but into an epic of its own, with Tolkien’s appendices and notes excavated to set the story of treasurere-claiming dwarves into a grander context.
This is the film’s weakness - not the intent, which is sound, but the faultlines running along the joins. Some of the book’s original touches remain unmistakably small - for instance, the dwarves doing an Eric and Ernie in Bilbo’s kitchen - and sit unevenly alongside the big moments, like the story of dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield earning his name at the Battle Of Abalunbizar, taken from The Lord Of The Rings’ appendix.
Elsewhere the film’s inventions are a mixed success - the expansion of burly Orc chieftain Azog’s role brings added narrative drive and danger, but Bilbo’s heroic turn towards the close is perhaps a slow-motion excess too far. In other words, it’s not perfect.
But take heart from the fact that neither was the original trilogy (it’s long enough ago to admit the army-of-the-dead stuff was a bit rubbish) and that there’s so much An Unexpected Journey does well.
Thirteen is a lot of dwarves for one film to handle, but most of them are given time to shine, while the action is as relentless and inventive as the original films. And when Howard Shore’s score breaks into full flow you too may feel the urge to climb treacherous mountains.
Though AUJ takes its time building momentum, it does leave you wanting more - which is just as well, since we’re only a third of the way there. DVD buyers will experience additional craving for extras; there’s zilch here, while Blu-ray owners get over two hours’ worth of video blogs.
Jackson’s hard to beat when it comes to peeks behind the scenes, but the content’s appeared online, so you may want to save your pennies for the extended (and presumably more extras-stuffed) edition later this year.