It all started out as a series of stories that J.R.R. Tolkien told his children during the 1930s, a tale that ended up being published under the title of The Hobbit. The story of Bilbo Baggins, the humble hobbit who is swept into a grand adventure with 13 dwarfs and the mysterious wizard Gandalf the Grey. Many years earlier, a fearsome dragon called Smaug had learned of the great riches of the dwarves and taken the kingdom of Erebor for himself. The quest at the center of The Hobbit is for Bilbo and the dwarves, led by the courageous Thorin Oakenshield, to slay Smaug and restore the dwarves rightful place as rulers of Erebor.

The Hobbit is a wonderful story, one I’ve read many times, listened to as a radio drama, and even suffered through a fairly terrible attempt to tell on screen. When I first heard that Peter Jackson and his creative team at Weta Studios was going to tackle the great Tolkien novels, I was excited: I’m also a fan of Jackson’s unique vision. Then he surprised us all by taking on the big story first, the massive Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And succeeding brilliantly, creating a three-part epic of cinematic storytelling that won dozens of awards and brought in billions in revenue.

The story of The Hobbit takes place sixty years prior to The Lord of the Rings, and there’s almost no cross-over (which makes sense given the order the books were written). In this film version, however, Jackson has added much material from other Tolkien writings about Middle Earth and its dense history, reinventing The Hobbit as another great saga, one that will take a rather staggering three films to complete. This first film covers the first third of the book, as you’d expect, ending with the eagles dropping Bilbo and the dwarves on the great rock, having survived their perilous adventure through the goblin tunnels (and Bilbo’s first encounter with the creepy Gollum).

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey Bilbo BagginsThe film does an amazing job of bringing this more accessible, more entertaining story to the screen. With much humor and a number of sight gags, we quickly grow to appreciate Bilbo (played superbly by Martin Freeman) as he’s coaxed and cajoled by the beloved Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into joining Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of merry men, um, merry dwarves on their “unexpected journey” to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug jealously guards a massive treasure at the center of the dwarven city of Erebor.

If you’re a purist, however, there’s much that transpires in the film that’ll surprise and confuse you. In the book, for example, there’s a passing sentence or two about rock giants playing a violent game of catch while the party tries to creep through the Misty Mountains in a raging storm. In the film, it’s an astonishing ten minute sequence where we’re surprised that none of the dwarves are smashed or plummet to their deaths.

Many characters from The Lord of the Rings films reprise their roles in The Hobbit too, including Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Old Bilbo from the opening of the first Rings book (Ian Holm), Frodo (Elijah Wood), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Gollum (brilliantly realized by Andy Serkis and an extraordinary series of digital transformations by the Weta f/x team). Do they all have a place in The Hobbit? Well, I have to admit that I enjoyed their appearance, feeling like old friends were appearing on screen. The continuity between the third Rings movie and this first installment of The Hobbit work splendidly, though it’s rather a long time before they actually begin the titular unexpected journey.

The film’s tone begins far lighter than any passage in the Rings trilogy, very much the whimsical children’s story that marked its beginning, to the point where I felt a bit annoyed at some of the silly sequences, notably when Bilbo complains that the dwarves are making a mess of his home, just to have them toss and fling dishes at lightning speed hither and yon, miraculously ceasing just as the last dish neatly piles atop the others. Definitely not a sequence that’s in the book.

There’s also a lot of back story presented, including a completely new sequence about Smaug’s assault on the Dwarven city of Erebor, including a sweeping battle scene that could have been lifted out of the Rings trilogy. In that scene we first meet the mysterious figure known as the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems likely to prove more dangerous than even Smaug in this retelling of The Hobbit.

Still, once the journey does begin, the film takes on a more satisfying tone and the narrative speeds up, with major adventures that take place with the horrible goblins. First, however, the party encounters the three hungry, and daft, trolls William, Bert and Tom, who would likely have the dwarves — and Bilbo! — as their meal if they weren’t too dim to realize they’re being masterfully tricked by the little hobbit to avoid taking cover prior to the deadly rays of dawn creeping over the mountain.

There’s then a perilous journey through the Misty Mountains, but there’s evil afoot, however, and the party end up falling into the lair of the goblins, a sequence that’s quite a bit longer than the few pages of the original book. Indeed, there are portions of the goblin sequence that feel more like they’re from an Indiana Jones adventure.

They escape with some help from Gandalf, while Bilbo has his own adventure trying to escape the goblin caverns when he meets the strange and luminous-eyed creature known as Gollum. The life-and-death riddle competition between the two is delightfully true to the book and one of the best sequences in the film, with Serkis bringing a creepy sense of pathos to Gollum and his mindless obsession with “his precious” golden ring (a ring that, of course, proves to be The One Ring and the entire basis of The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

The Hobbit is a long film, at almost three hours running time, demonstrating yet again Jackson’s frequent desire to squeeze every possible scene into his movies. There’ll likely be an extended director’s cut released that’ll add another 45min or more too. Still, it flies and with the exception of a somewhat slow beginning, is a delight from beginning to end, with excellent performances, realistic sets and settings, and almost uniformly flawless special effects.

Which brings us to the bad news. In an attempt to fix some of the problems with 3D, Jackson and his team created a new projection technology known as HFR 3D (HFR for high-frame-rate). Instead of the usual 24 frames/second of a standard film, 3D or otherwise, the version of The Hobbit I saw was projected in 48fps, which gave it a weird, hyper-realistic, “TV” like feel, and while it was less annoying as the film proceeded, I never quite stopped feeling that I was watching a BBC TV production being projected, rather than a cinematic movie. Indeed, during a few of the more whimsical scenes, I thought “Blimey, it’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to Middle Earth”. That didn’t last long as I got caught up in the storyline, but I do have to say that if you have the option of seeing the non-3D, non-HFR version, go to that instead. To my experienced cinematic eye, the new technology got in the way of the experience, rather than enhancing it.

Technology aside, however, The Hobbit‘s wonderful. A really fun beginning to another epic Middle Earth journey from the extraordinarily talented Jackson and his cast and crew. Freeman is perfect as the reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins, Richard Armitage brings Thorin Oakenshield to life as a passionate warrior and the film’s just a delight. The fact that it’ll be better on Blu-Ray when you can skip the HFR technology? That works for me too.

Go. See it. Enjoy it. And let us know what you think!