The year 2012: a good one for archers, Michael Fassbender and swearing bears. Fantasy movies, not so much.
Wrath Of The Titans was bigger, more personal and just as dull as its predecessor. John Carter wound up in the red. Mirror Mirror or Snow White & The Huntsman? Hard to say which was grimmer.
But luckily, hope is not lost for fans of lairy dwarves…
Back in his wheelhouse after tripping over The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson’s return to swords, sorcery and beards deserving of their own postcodes is fantasy how it ought to be.
True, there’s a sense that we’ve been here and back again before – especially as An Unexpected Journey follows a similar road-map to The Fellowship Of The Ring, with a motley group (13 dwarves, one wizard, one hobbit) questing across perilous lands.
But in the tussle between déjà vu and Jackson’s authoritative ability to draw you into richly conceived otherworlds, it’s the latter that emerges champ.
Besides, the Kiwi auteur does take risks. Making three films out of three books is one thing; doing the same with one relatively terse volume, something else.
In terms of key incidents, AUJ doesn’t burrow too far into Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings-predating novel. Yet it rarely feels like Jackson has had the rolling pin out, overstretching the material.
Nudging three hours, it moves at an even clip – and that’s with the plot delayed by two prologues.
The first is a dazzling shard of backstory that introduces – in blazing glimpses – one of this trilogy’s major foes; the second re-introduces Elijah Wood’s Frodo and Ian Holm’s ageing Bilbo, framing our tale as one passed down to a younger generation.
A bedtime story? Tolkien wrote a book for kids, but Jackson hasn’t made a movie for them. This trip to Middle-earth treads a pleasing middle ground between the whimsy on the page and the portent of the later books/earlier films.
It’s a delicate balance between, on the one hand, singsongs, camomile tea and cute, ailing hedgehogs; and on the other, lopped limbs, chilly hints of evils to come and wild-eyed wolf-monsters that get right up in the viewer’s grill thanks to Jackson’s 3D.
The director’s first foray into stereoscopy occasionally has a cut-out quality that can pull you out of the alt-world immersion he cultivates so successfully.
But it comes into its own with Jackson’s God’s-eye-view camera swooping over, under and through the luxurious landscapes (real and digital).
Total Film saw the film in the contentious new 48 frames per second format – yes, it takes a few scenes to adjust to and yes, it’s a bit like watching live TV.
But the pay-off is a striking smoothness and sharpness: a helter-skelter tumble into the heart of a mountain, or a breathless battle through goblin territory.
Never mind the elaborate action sequences: Jackson has his work cut out for him choreographing 15 protagonists for a spot of supper.
It was perhaps to be expected, but not all the dwarves emerge as rounded personalities on this first showing.
But still, Ken Stott makes a thoughtful Balin (the snowy-haired one), Stephen Hunter avoids getting slap-stuck as Bombur (the fat one) and there’s an Aragorn-y vibe to Richard Armitage’s Thorin, the leader of the pack who brings brooding focus to the simple but emotive theme of wanting to find a home.
For the title character, meanwhile, it’s all about getting off your arse and seeking new horizons.
Peter Jackson worked around Martin Freeman’s Sherlock schedule to nab him as Bilbo. You can see why.
Elijah Wood’s Frodo may have carried an incalculable burden but he was, frankly, a bit of a whinger. Freeman’s Bilbo likes a moan too, but the part gives the Brit licence to show off his sitcom-honed comic touch.
Not that there’s anything showy-offy about his subtlety; as The Office viewers will recall, he’s a master of the deadpan put down (“Is he a great wizard,” he asks Ian McKellen’s once-again grey Gandalf; “or is he like you?”) and makes exasperation seem understated.
He also straddles the tone’s comic/dramatic divide. Just when you worry his self-effacing performance is getting lost in the monster mash, along comes the centrepiece confrontation with Gollum (Andy Serkis, showstopping as ever), a game of riddles where Bilbo’s wit and mettle are shaded with genuine anxiety.
Freeman’s the all-too-human face of Jackson’s gargantuan vision, his performance indicating that the emotional stakes will keep pace with the ramped-up challenges ahead. “Home is now behind you,” Gandalf counsels Bilbo. “The world is ahead.” Right beside you, little man.
Charming, spectacular, technically audacious… in short, everything you expect from a Peter Jackson movie. A feeling of familiarity does take hold in places, but this is an epically entertaining first course.