A long slow journey to an abrupt ending

There is a sense of sledgehammers being used to crack nuts in the first part of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. J R R Tolkien's short 1937 novel has been turned into an enormous Wagnerian epic.

Not a great deal actually happens in this initial episode. The personable, home-loving Bilbo Baggins (very engagingly played by Martin Freeman) is prised out of his retreat by Gandalf and the 13 dwarves and signed up to accompany them on their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom of Erebor.

As the dwarves plunder Bilbo's larder and Gandalf (Ian McKellen, stroking a very long beard) tries to persuade him to join the mission, The Hobbit moves along with a complete lack of voltage.

It's only when the party comes up against some hungry but dim-witted trolls that the momentum begins to pick up.

Thankfully, Jackson's flair for action sequences and bold and complex production design hasn't deserted him. The Goblin King (Barry Humphries) is obese and repulsive. He presides over a hellish goblin kingdom that brings to mind Hieronymus Bosch paintings. Jackson throws in more and more swooping camerawork.

Familiar faces – Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm – are seen fleetingly. However, one of the very best scenes in the film pits Bilbo against Gollum (Andy Serkis) in a game of riddles. In this scene, at least, the balance between menace, tension and humour is perfectly struck.

This isn't a film that builds to a natural conclusion. We are only part of the way into the quest, and the ending here is strangely abrupt. You are not quite sure why the film has taken so long – close to three hours – to deliver relatively little in terms of plot development. There is a suspicion that the producers have cut a sandwich into three that could easily have been served up in two. Even so, audiences are bound to eat it up and come back for more. Jackson's Tolkien adaptations have a cult appeal, while newcomers looking for cinematic spectacle won't feel too badly short-changed.

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