Hobbit emerges from hole in the ground

For fans of The Lord of the Rings, Elvish is almost back in the building. Heading to New Zealand for the premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Wednesday, there are excellent reasons to be optimistic about Peter Jackson's return to the world of hobbits, dwarves, wizards and dragons.

First, of course, it's Peter Jackson. Despite an earlier plan for Guillermo del Toro to direct two Hobbit movies, with Jackson producing and co-writing the script, no filmmaker could have a better feel for Middle Earth and its characters.

And now that he's drawing on Tolkien's notes for a planned revision and making three movies, few directors in cinema history have shown they can maintain such high storytelling standards over a trilogy.

There are more reasons to feel encouraged:

Structurally, Tolkien's relatively slim novel is a quest by Bilbo Baggins and 13 dwarves to seize the treasure guarded by the fearsome dragon Smaug. While it is episodic, Bilbo's rising confidence and bonding with the dwarves through a series of conflicts seems ready-made for a screen version.

Jackson says An Unexpected Journey is 160 minutes long - substantial but less than the 178, 179 and 201 minutes of The Lord of the Rings movies - but he insists there is enough story for another trilogy. Given his pacing of the earlier trilogy was as near perfect as his control of tone and melding of human emotion with epic scale, that's good enough for me.

Also heading back to Middle Earth are the behind-the-scenes team that won 17 Oscars and many of the key cast, including Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond. Amid all the acclaim, the strength of the performances was an under-appreciated aspect of The Lord of the Rings, as shown by only one of the 30 Oscar nominations going to an actor - McKellen for The Fellowship of the Ring.

English actor Martin Freeman (The Office, Love Actually, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Sherlock) seems just about ideal to play Bilbo Baggins, with his Hobbitish looks and ability to play comedy with heart.

There seems only three reasons to be not quite so confident:

Lightning strikes rarely for even the best filmmakers. Considering all the obstacles Jackson had to overcome on The Lord of the Rings - starting from when Harvey Weinstein wanted to replace him with Shakespeare in Love's John Madden if he refused to make just one movie instead of two - its success was nothing short of phenomenal. Could a second trilogy possibly work so well again? Precious few filmmakers have had anywhere near the same success when they return later to familiar territory, including Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather: Part 3, George Lucas with Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and, more recently, Ridley Scott with Prometheus.

There is a dramatic problem with the climax to the novel. (A spoiler follows so if you haven't read The Hobbit, skip this paragraph). When Bilbo and the dwarves finally confront Smaug, Tolkien has the dragon killed by a secondary character elsewhere, only after Bilbo has identified its weakness. Dramatically, that's like having a guest character solve the crime in a CSI episode rather than your central cast. But it will be two movies before we know how they deal with the issue.

Warner Bros is requiring critics to hold back reviews until after the US premiere on December 3. This is to allow reviews to run closer to the movie's US release on December 14; in Australia, it's out on December 26. In many ways, that's perfectly reasonable given the way social media amplifies extreme early reviews over the more considered words of valued critics. But there are cases when an embargo is to postpone the news a movie hasn't worked.

No matter. We'll know soon enough.

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