The Hobbit trilogy begins with a welcome return to Middle-Earth packed with the humour, horror and heart that we now expect from Jackson's cast and crew.
Any fears that The Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy would flounder like the Star Wars prequels prove unfounded. A possible reason for this is the timing. The Phantom Menace surfaced sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, where LOTR only concluded nine years ago. The smaller waiting period means that Jackson's team is still in the zone, with all of the familiar Oscar-winning players returning: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (co-screenwriters), Andrew Lesnie (cinematography), Andrew Taylor (special effects), Howard Shore (composer) and the rest.
Also, due to a framing device and the convenient lack of ageing of certain Tolkein characters, we are also treated to plenty of familiar faces, including Ian Holm's Bilbo, Elijah Wood's Frodo, Sir Christopher Lee's Saruman and, of course, Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf (back in playful Grey mode after ending LOTR in his serious White form).
Most crucially, Jackson himself returned, after briefly handing over the reins to Guillermo del Toro. Great though del Toro is, it just wouldn't have been the same with a different director at the helm. But with Jackson back, The Hobbit seamlessly embodies everything that was great about LOTR, whether it be the grotesque monsters, over-the-top action, slapstick humour or the tear-jerking whimsy of a Baggins.
All of this helps maintain the same feel as the original trilogy, which is where the Star Wars prequels drastically failed.
Bizarrely, many newspaper critics have launched lukewarm reviews at this return to Middle-Earth. It is hard not to see this as a shallow attempt at salvaging integrity. Why can't these critics just sit back and enjoy three hours of pure entertainment?
Most criticisms are levelled at the film's length and the trilogy expansion in general. Yes, The Hobbit began life as a 200-page children's book. But LOTR fans did not spend nine years waiting for a children's film. And Jackson's team operate at such a high level of production that it would be a shame to reunite for one or even two films. So, thankfully, Jackson and New Line made the last minute decision to commit to a trilogy.
Naturally, those 200 pages needed fleshing out in order to make a trilogy. But none of the additions feel forced. The flashbacks are welcome, allowing us to see Erebor in all of its splendour and witness the fight for Moria. The dwarves are thankfully given unique personalities, as opposed to the largely homogenous mass of dwarves in the book. Plus, Gandalf's story is told, shedding light on his unexplained absences in the book when he would vanish for great stretches. Gandalf's side-quest is of particular interest, as it involves the White Council's debate about the Necromancer, which foreshadows the return of Sauron and does some nice LOTR cohesion.
It is testament to Jackson's films that amidst all of the 3-D, faster frame-rate trickery, the audience are always left talking about the performances. Martin Freeman performs a career-best turn and certainly deserves the critical-acclaim for bringing the laughs and tugging at the heartstrings. Freeman even holds his own against Andy Serkis' Gollum, brilliant and textured as ever, who could have stolen the riddles scene from a less-accomplished actor. A further special mention must be given to Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, the animal-loving wizard, who is pure bonkers. He does get some darker moments too and who better to blend dramatic with deranged than a former Doctor Who incarnation?
A slight gripe could be made about the dwarves. Sadly, despite all of the efforts to give them a unique appearance and character, a lot of these personalities have been sidelined and are only evident to those who have read the interviews in film magazines. Some of the dwarves only have one line each and it feels a little depressing watching these professional actors kitted out in prosthetics, only to run around and swing axes. But that is why Jackson famously releases Extended Edition DVD box-sets, with plenty of unseen footage polished and integrated into the main edit. Add it to your 2013 Christmas list now.
An Unexpected Journey gloriously kicks off a new Middle-Earth trilogy and whilst the journey might be unexpected, the high level of film-making was exactly what we expected from Jackson's team. There is plenty left to cover in the next two films (spiders, Mirkwood elves, Beorn, Lake-Town, Smaug, Bard, the Battle of Five Armies) and next December cannot arrive soon enough.
Thankfully, the road goes ever on and on.