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It is uncanny how similar Ian Holm looks to Martin Freeman. There’s a brief flashback in the first LOTR film in which we see the young Bilbo and Holm’s resemblance to Freeman now is surprising. The role suits Freeman to a tee; Bilbo is ever so slightly eccentric, he likes his home comforts but when called upon can display outrageous bravery. There are a few moments when Freeman does makes Bilbo very modern in his mannerisms which are very much in character but stand out because everyone else is in serious film mode. He brings an identifiable ordinary bloke-ness to a scenario that is otherwise populated by boisterous dwarves, sombre elves and growling trolls.
The best character scenes occupy the first half of the film. Beforehand you imagine how difficult it will be to keep tabs on twelve dwarves yet each is well drawn and individual enough in nature to play their part. The sequence where, one by one, they arrive at Bag End is amusing and also serves as an introduction for us. Inevitably some get more to do than others- Richard Armitage glowers and simmers as king in waiting Thereon while Ken Stott sprinkles a lighter mood as the oldest of the dwarves. Ian McKellen is on hand to reprise a role that he imbues with both mischief and solemnity as Gandalf again proves a pivotal figure. Sylvester McCoy impresses as the frazzled and eccentric Radaghast the Brown almost stealing the film. Inevitably it is Andy Serkis who makes the biggest impact though in a sequence involving Gollum losing the ring to Bilbo. There’s a neat visual note to the Fellowship film in there and Gollum is as bizarre as ever.
The narrative is less involved with alliances and armies than the original trilogy and a lengthy exposition at the start sketches in enough about how the dwarves lost their kingdom after the dragon Smaug attacked (it doesn’t say why he did though) and bear a grudge against the elves for not helping. If you think you spot analogies to problems in the Middle East they are probably coincidental as Tolkien seems preoccupied with the heroism of ordinary people as he is with anything more overtly political.
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There are some breathtaking sequences contained in the film including a relentlessly exciting section that must run for at least half an hour in which our pint sized heroes are captured by trolls, escape through their cave system and end up trapped up some trees on the edge of a cliff. Some of the heroic deeds done defy realism (not that this is bad) but you roll with it anyway. You might wonder just how the dwarves come through all of this with just a few cuts and bruises but that would spoil what is a terrific slice of action, as good as anything from the first films.
Notwithstanding this barnstorming climax, there is a lighter feel to proceedings than there was in the Rings films; the rambunctious dwarves, Radaghast and some thick trolls make sure there is more of a sense of fun about the adventure whatever the seriousness of the quest itself. The result is a movie that belies its two and three quarter hour length by remaining involving, exciting and amusing all the way through. Now all of a sudden, I’m glad there are going to be three films....!