And so it was that I went on my ... ah... expected journey into the cinema with middling expectations at best, and found myself very pleasantly surprised. And I grinned like an excitable child throughout the entire film.
All the usual Jacksonian virtues are in place - excellent script-writing, a first-rate cast, spectacular effects (frame rate, pah!), New Zealand landscapes - and combine to create something unabashedly epic. Most action films I see these days tend to undercut their heroic dimension with a hefty side-order of irony or self-deconstructing humour. The Hobbit, like the Rings films before it, is curiously old-fashioned in its refusal to apologize for or undermine its epic status.
The new casting is excellent - Martin Freeman is well-cast as Bilbo and equally convinces as the English country gentle-hobbit and the reluctant action hero. His face-off with Gollum is a tour-de-force by him and Andy Serkis and the heart of the film.
Richard Armitage manages to capture the twin dimensions of Thorin - the guerilla warlord his followers would go with into the jaws of death and the way his bravery and pride undercut his competence as a leader. Seriously, I can see why Gandalf chooses to hang out with hobbits.
We're still having difficulty pinning character traits onto all the dwarves, but that's an even bigger problem in the book*
The additional material the writers have added generally amplifies what's already provided by Tolkien rather than feeling like an ungainly modern graft. So, Thorin gets a backstory and an orcish nemesis in hot pursuit to add underlying tension to their travels across Middle Earth; Radagast provides additional comic relief; and the appearance of Galadriel and Saruman for an impromptu Council of the Wise at Rivendell serves to reinforce the maverick and marginal status of Thorin's mission to the Lonely Mountain.
There's the odd flourish too many - the battle under the Goblin Mountain is like Moria stacked on top of the Temple of Doom on top of the Goonies in some crazed attempt to topple the very gods themselves, but it's so endearingly deranged that I'm half tempted to forgive it.
They have Bilbo pick up on exactly the same notion of everyday heroism that I did when providing a quote for my employers on the Hobbit in the summer of last year. He goes questing for excitement, but also and more importantly to give the dwarves what he has but they lack - a home. And Bilbo does this despite his lack of experience and self-confidence, because he understands this as a moral imperative.
In short: Peter Jackson knows what he's doing, as ever. Go see.
*The merchant one; the one who looks like a Warhammer Troll Slayer; the Jimmy Genghis Nesbit one; the devilishly handsome Being Human one; the glutton; the other young one; the mystic and the slighly pathetic one with the catapult. Sigh, only 8 out of 11 dwarves identified. FAIL.
I should be using this handy flowchart from Wired to identify my dwarves, it seems.