What was once a simple tale for children has morphed into a giant tableau that simultaneously seeks to lay the groundwork for what is to come in The Lord of the Rings while existing as a story in its own right.
JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit can be viewed – not particularly accurately – as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. In the hands of Peter Jackson, returning to the fold after almost a decade, it emerges as a crowd-pleasing extension to one of the most adored franchises in film history. Set 60 years before the events of the first three films The Hobbit sees Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman in an inspired piece of casting) accompany a band of dwarves as they embark on a journey to reclaim their lost kingdom from the dragon, Smaug.
Persuaded to undertake his mission by the wizard Gandalf (a returning Ian McKellen), Bilbo finds himself among a merry group led by fearless warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage substituting for Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean).
So begins a somewhat fragmented adventure involving trolls, orcs, goblins, eccentric wizards and shadowy necromancers. An hour of exposition crawls by before Bilbo and Co – there are 13 dwarves in total with a bewildering array of names – begin their quest, such is the requirement to set the scene. Jackson relies heavily on flashbacks to earlier conflicts and histories to fill out Tolkien’s original 125-page novel. And scattered throughout are familiar faces: Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Christopher Lee as Saruman.
Notwithstanding several almost stand-alone vignettes, the film really comes alive with the reintroduction of Gollum, as played by the incomparable Andy Serkis.
Only then does The Hobbit appear to have any genuine roots – a link to what went before. Jackson and returning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie make fine use of the epic landscape of New Zealand as a backdrop to the dwarves stumbling from one near calamity to another.
However, there is the inescapable feeling that this is a tapestry of several almost mighty moments strung together to materialise as a CGI-heavy spin-off, not a prequel.