There is a moment early in 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' when Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) turns to diminutive hero Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) and counsels: “All good stories deserve embellishment.”
Director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro have taken the wise wizard’s words to heart and embellished JRR Tolkien’s novel to the point of creative obesity.
Visually stunning flashbacks, which fail to advance the plot, are roughly hewn into a sprawling narrative that doesn’t kick into second gear for a good 45 minutes.
The decision to shoot the film in 3D at the higher rate of 48 frames per second compared to the usual 24 frames will divide audiences.
Everything looks cleaner and crisper – you can see the stitching on Gandalf’s hat and prosthetics in minute detail – but this might be too much heightened reality for a sweeping fantasy that romanticises the bonds of trust between gung-ho brothers.
In the first deviation from the text, Jackson opens his picture at Bag End with the elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) penning a book to his cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood).
We rewind 60 years to meet Bilbo (Freeman) in the Shire as he encounters Gandalf (McKellen) and a 13-strong company of dwarves, who intend to reclaim their lost gold from the dragon Smaug in his mountain lair.
After a sleepless night, Bilbo agrees to accompany dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his troops on their perilous mission.
“Axe or sword – what is your weapon of choice?” Thorin asks Bilbo.
“Well, I do have some skills with conkers,” meekly replies the hobbit.
En route, the brave souls encounter elvish allies including Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), as well as wretched Gollum (Andy Serkis) and the corpulent Goblin King (Barry Humphries).
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' reunites Jackson with cast and crew of the 'Lord Of The Rings' trilogy, including cinematographer Andrew Leslie and composer Howard Shore.
The writer-director employs the same visual lexicon: sweeping aerial shots of characters traipsing over New Zealand landscapes, close-ups of ethereal figures in deep contemplation.
Nerve-racking scenes with Gollum are undoubtedly the highlight of this opening salvo.
An hour of substance is bloated to 166 minutes of digital trickery and breathless action sequences including a protracted chase through the subterranean lair of the goblins.
One plot strand, involving a Necromancer gaining power in his stronghold at Dol Guldur, dangles tantalisingly in the background and will presumably be stitched into the narrative in the second film.
While some of the dwarves, notably Balin (Ken Stott) and Bofur (James Nesbitt), are gifted scenes to illustrate their personalities, most of Thorin’s motley crew are indistinguishable aside from their rhyming names.
Freeman brings a touch of humour to his pint-sized weakling, who learns that “true courage is knowing not when to take a life but when to spare one”.
McKellen and co ease back into familiar supporting roles and Armitage swaggers as the vengeful son, who allows rage to cloud his judgement at a vital juncture.
When Bilbo subsequently remarks: “I do believe the worst is behind us”, we know he must be joking, else the next two chapters, 'Desolation Of Smaug' and 'There And Back Again', released in 2013 and 2014 respectively will be exceedingly dull affairs.
Star Rating: 3/5