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The Hobbit is a better-than-expected journey

On my 11th birthday, my father gave me a copy of “The Hobbit” to read. From those first words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” I was glued to every word of every page.

Then, I saw the Rankin & Bass 1977 cartoon and was utterly disappointed. I went back to the book and never went back. And, when it was announced Peter Jackson would be producing a three-installment series of films based on “The Lord of the Rings,” I was nearly as disappointed — until I saw “Fellowship of the Ring.”

Of all the books of my childhood, few were as enjoyable to me as “The Hobbit.” And, as Jackson’s rendition of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy unfolded on film, I pined for the day he would take up what was, at least in my mind, the better story.

But he moved on to other things, although promising to come back to “The Hobbit” when his schedule was cleared. The wait was excruciating. It finally ended early this morning at the Capitol II Theater in Newton.

It was worth the 10-year wait. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is hardly unexpected, but is absolutely better than expected.

Unlike other trilogies that will go unnamed (for now), the long wait for the “prequel story” and subsequent improvements in technology haven’t created a disconnect for the audience. The creatures Jackson and his wizards at WETA conjured up more than a decade ago look much the same as those they treat us with in this first installment of “The Hobbit.”

My biggest concern going into this film was how actors who have clearly aged more than a decade since the last time they performed in Middle-earth could possibly appear 60 years their junior in this new trilogy. Perhaps it was very good make-up work, and perhaps it was some CGI magic, but either way, those concerns were quickly quelled.

Even on celluloid, the detail and variety of environments of Middle-earth are captured in all their awe-inspiring beauty. And, as one might expect, the action sequences are intense — at times, even more intense than in “Lord of the Rings.”

Like his work with the previous Tolkien trilogy, Jackson has expanded upon several minor characters in “The Hobbit,” such as the orc Azog and Radagast the Brown. And, at points, is artistic license appears to delve deeper than even “The Silmarillion” covers.

Some purists will likely be offended by some of it. I, on the other hand, think they add a dimension to the story that adds to the adventure, the danger and the intrigue of what is yet to come. And, if you’ve never read a single page of Tolkien, it won’t matter in the slightest.

The returning cast members from “Lord of the Rings” are still just as brilliant as they were more than a decade ago. But the casting for “The Hobbit” already appears to be nothing short of amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief appearance as a key antagonist, which creates some positive intrigue heading into the second and third installments.

But it’s Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins who makes the film worth more than one viewing. He captures Baggins’ nervousness, fear, bashfulness, humility, humor and courage in a way I wasn’t expecting to see. 

And while Sir Ian McKellan is just as vital to the film as the magnificent score, gorgeous production design, the sweeping vistas and rich cinematography, it is Richard Armitage who, as Thorin Oakenshield, the Dwarf King of Erebor, adds that extra richness the storytelling needs.

I’m ready for “The Desolation of Smaug” — right now. Twelve months is going to be a very long time to wait.

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