Despite benefiting from the world-establishing goodwill generated by the Lord of the Rings movies, this film stands ably on its own, offering up generous piles of large scale fantasy underscored by genuine emotional heft and boundary-pushing visuals.
The structure heavily recalls Fellowship – opening history lesson; Hobbiton tranquility; a long walk; an Elven meeting and some fun inside a mountain. But the character dynamics and gargantuan set-pieces set it apart.
The theme of stepping outside one’s comfort zone to engage in the big, bad world is palpably evoked by Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. The hesitant, beleaguered Freeman is so perfectly cast, it’s easy to see why Peter Jackson shifted the shooting schedule to accommodate him.
Jackson does an admirable job of corralling the thirteen dwarves, who each somehow manage to display individual traits. As their leader Thorin Oakenshield, Richard Armitage grandly embodies the heroism of the story, and will surely be the recipient of a Viggo Mortensen-esque career bump.
The tone occasionally skews a little younger than LOTR, but the disparity isn’t huge. It does allow the low-brow humour of Jackson’s early work to shine through however, especially in the form of the grotesquely jowly, flatulent Goblin King, performed mo-cap style by Dame Edna herself, Barry Humphries.
Spartacus star Manu Bennett gives a fantastic mo-cap performance as pale orc Azog, once again displaying Jackson and company’s gift for creating iconic antagonists where Tolkien didn’t. Indeed, any concerns about this feeling too much like preamble had evaporated by the end of the film. There’s a natural arc here and it runs its course.
Enterprises of this scale are par for the course in Hollywood these days – but this film simply reinforces what Peter Jackson and his collaborators do better than anyone else: they take you on a real emotional journey, unexpected or otherwise.