"Unexpected" is right, for a couple of reasons. Peter Jackson, the man who brought Lord Of The Rings to the big screen to eardrum-shattering acclaim 10 years ago, is now taking just the same approach to Tolkien's much slighter, slimmer children's book The Hobbit. It's getting expanded into three movie episodes of which this whoppingly long film is the opener.
So Tolkien's gentle tale is going to be a triple box-office bonanza, occupying the same amount of space as the mighty Rings epic, an effect achieved by pumping up the confrontations, opening out the backstory and amplifying the ambient details, like zooming in on a Google Middle Earth.
The second unexpected point is the look of the thing. Jackson has pioneeringly shot The Hobbit in HFR, or High Frame Rate: 48 frames a second, as opposed to the traditional 24, giving a much higher definition and smoother "movement" effect. But it looks uncomfortably like telly, albeit telly shot with impossibly high production values and in immersive 3D. Before you grow accustomed to this, it feels as if there has been a terrible mistake in the projection room and they are showing us the video location report from the DVD "making of" featurette, rather than the actual film.
There can be no doubt that Jackson has made The Hobbit with brio and fun, and Martin Freeman is just right as Bilbo Baggins: he plays it with understatement and charm. But I had the weird, residual sense that I was watching an exceptionally expensive, imaginative and starry BBC Television drama production, the sort that goes out on Christmas Day, with 10 pages of coverage in the seasonal Radio Times, and perhaps a break in the middle for the Queen's Speech.
Well, it grows on you. The HFR style has immediacy and glitter, particularly in the outdoor locations, where the New Zealand landscapes, in all their splendour, are revealed more sharply and clearly, and there is an almost documentary realism to the fable. Indoors though, it's not quite the same story.
We approach the drama via its mythic setup: the terrifying dragon Smaug appropriates the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. The older hobbit, played with maundering geniality by Ian Holm is presented to us; then it's back in time to meet our unlikely hero, the gentle Bilbo Baggins, younger but still a somewhat donnish, bookish bachelor figure like Tolkien and CS Lewis. He is contacted by the charismatic Wizard Gandalf The Grey — and it's a pleasure to see Ian McKellen back in the cloak, whiskers and pointy hat, bringing a sparkle of life and fun to the part, and stealing the scene with ruminative little smiles and eyebrow-raisings.
Under Gandalf's influence, Bilbo is forced to confront his destiny as a hobbit of action, and acquaints himself with the robust warrior class of dwarves. There's a nice performance from Ken Stott as Balin, with an outrageous big purple-ish nose, as if he's spent his time in exile drinking malt whisky. They are led by the mighty and taller warrior Thorin, played by Richard Armitage.
And so the quest begins, and the questers come across such familiar figures as Galadriel – a seraphic and almost immobile Cate Blanchett – and Saruman, played with impassive dignity and presence, of course, by Christopher Lee. But soon they must tackle the evil Orcs.
There are explosively dramatic battles, with a lot of 3D plunging from vertiginous heights. But the crux comes with Bilbo's meeting with the ineffably creepy Gollum, played in motion-capture once again by Andy Serkis. It is a terrific scene, a contest of nerves, a duel of wits, and the one moment in the film where the drama really comes alive and Freeman's (admirable) underplaying of the role works well against Serkis's animal paranoia.
There is also something quietly affecting in Gandalf's moral strategy in recruiting Bilbo: "I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I'm afraid, and he gives me courage."
And the rest of the film offers an enormous amount of fun, energy and a bold sense of purpose. But after 170 minutes I felt that I had had enough of a pretty good thing. The trilogy will test the stamina of the non-believers, and many might feel, in their secret heart of hearts, that the traditional filmic look of Lord of the Rings was better. But if anyone can make us love the new epically supercharged HFR Hobbit, it's Peter Jackson.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Justin Sewell