It's nice to go back to Middle Earth. The first installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is another film put together with the same care and thought as the Lord of the Rings, but it's a different story, and any comparisons to the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a bit unfair. This is Bilbo's story, and although there are some deviations from Tolkien canon, it remains faithful to the scope and tone of the adventure, while layering on some slightly darker details that neither Bilbo nor his dwarven companions realize. It remains to be seen how successful the tie-ins to the later Fellowship story will be, but as an adventure yarn, very few films can surpass what was done on the screen.
The story remains largely on the scale of Fellowship, with an episodic journey from place to place and peril to peril, just as the book takes us. For movie purposes, this means that action takes the place of exposition in some places, and its all balanced with some very nice right off the page story telling, and even some of the songs made it this time. The Unexpected Party scene is well handled, as is the first meeting with Gandalf, and the whole 'good morning' sequence. The journey itself displays wonderful vistas as always, and little things like the ponies, an the varied and interesting dwarves really balance the picture nicely. Peter Jackson has added some strategic overtones to figuring out the Necromancer's identity, and that the dragon is more of a threat long term. This is from the supplemental material and leftover writings of Tolkien about the Quest for Erebor. Meanwhile on the pure adventure side, there's plenty of action in the mountains, and the CG seems fantastical, but still organic enough to make you wonder. Even those of us that know the story well have to be impressed with the detail. I also liked the Top Chef trolls. Very amusing.
Performances are all wonderful. We don't get a lot of each dwarf, but certainly Thorin (Richard Armitage); Balin (Ken Stott); and Bofur (James Nesbitt) give excellent support to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman). It's an ensemble piece, and everyone has good moments, even the nice cameos by Galadriel and pre-evil Saruman are showcased. Andy Serkis makes Gollum fascinating to watch once more, and the whole Riddles In The Dark sequence is a standout in a film filled with great moments. Martin Freeman is spot-on as Bilbo. As an actor, Freeman is more comic than hero, but when he says a sincere line, as he does perfectly in some key palces, it comes off beautifully. McKellen is flawless as usual.
Yes, it has some weak points, but they're not all that important. The early inclusion of a nemesis for Thorin is a little much, but it helps the pacing on this film, which is long, and it gives us a needed break from the foot slog that the book details. The tone of the film is necessarily much more whimsical, since this is before Sauron actually announces his return, and before the Ring really makes its presence known. As Tolkien wrote, Bilbo's arrival in the caverns started a small avalanche of happenings that culminate in the later Lord of the Rings story, but Jackson has skillfully kept this in the background. The momentous nature of the Ring has yet to be revealed, and even Bilbo isn't very sure of how it can be used. The humorous tone makes the more dangerous sequences more dire, and the heartfelt moments even better, as when Bilbo pledges to continue with the dwarves to get their homeland back. It's just the tip of the hobbit iceberg that we'll see in the next two films. This is all difficult material to adapt, and Jackson and his team have once again lost nothing of their skill ove the last decade. It shows in every frame.