My fears that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would be a disappointment were based on a number of rather negative and griping reviews. Fortunately, those reviews were wrong. The Hobbit is, in a word, brilliant.
The great strength of the film is that it has clearly been made by people who have not only read the book but love it and understand it to an impressive depth. That is not to say that the film is simply the book turned into moving pictures, quite the reverse in fact!
Already purist reviews have expressed immense sadness at the numerous "inaccuracies" in the film. As a Tolkien obsessive (I even read Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle Earth) I can testify that while almost nothing from the book has been cut, many important details (especially character details) have been changed and large chunks of the film's plot have been invented altogether.
Two major examples are the characters Radagast and Thorin's main antagonist (it's not Smaug the Dragon as you might expect). The former is not in the book at all, while the latter gets a mention but plays nothing like the part he does in the film.
This however is where the makers of the film show their true genius for they are not just retelling the story of The Hobbit, but are showing us more of Middle Earth than we have ever seen before either in print or on the screen.
Radagast appears only in the Lord of the Rings, and very little was written or known about him. Yet here we get not only to see this mysterious character up close but we have him explore the ruins of Dol Guldur, a place Tolkien himself never really described other than to say one would not really wish to go there. These scenes also serve to link The Hobbit with the Lord of the Rings in a so far seamless and dramatic fashion.
Some may argue that the invented "non-canonical" scenes are a ploy to stretch out the film series and make more money for the makers. Well, I cannot deny that this could well be their effect, but they will have earned their money because these scenes are splendid, dramatic and are on the whole believable - they may not be in the pages of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but they certainly could be.
This gives the film the power to excite not only those with no knowledge of the books but those who know them inside out with the "what's going to happen next?" factor.
The same ability to appeal to Tolkien virgins and Tolkien aficionados applies to the film's dialogue and humour. While plenty of lines got laughs from the whole cinema audience I'm sure I was the only person who got the joke when Gandalf failed to name two the five wizards. Equally I suspect I was also the only person in the audience to have a tear in his eye when Bilbo spoke the words "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit..." (Sad I know).
It was on the whole a wonderful experience.
That is not to say however that the film is without defects.
For one it seems that Middle Earth has fallen victim to a small amount of Warhammerfication or Warcraftisation. For example the depiction of the Dwarf Kingdom in the Lonely Mountain would appear to owe more to World of Warcraft than to Tolkien (the two titanic statues of Dwarf warriors at the gate do not help in this regard), although it's still an impressive sight. Equally the King of the Wood Elves appears to ride a stag. This may be fine for Warhammer but Tolkien's Elves rode horses like everyone else of sufficient height.
Another aspect I was not so happy with was that Martin Freeman's dialogue as Bilbo Baggins seemed to be too much that of a modern man (not in the Anthony Blair sense thank goodness), rather than that of a creature of Middle Earth. This however can be forgiven as the point of Bilbo's character is arguably to be a plain everyman in the company of extraordinary people.
Aside from these issues and the somewhat questionable table manners of some of the Dwarves, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is magnificent and as the eagles flew off into the distance I felt it an immense cruelty and sadness that I have to wait a whole year for part two.