Nine years have passed since Sauron was defeated and the Fellowship of the Ring got on a bed with Elijah Wood's Frodo and laughed themselves silly, but that hasn't stopped every major cast member reprising their role where required. The two Hobbit films will see the welcome return of Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Sir Christopher Lee as Saruman, Wood as Frodo, Ian Holm as the elderly Bilbo, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and, of course, the brilliant Andy Serkis as the schizophrenic mocap creation Gollum (and also credited as Second Unit Director).
With this cavalcade of familiar faces and a tight directorial/script-writing team - as well as trusted cinematographers (the film will be shot in both 3D and 48 fps), art directors, special effects teams, props teams and illustrators - one could be forgiven for thinking that the nine years between this and the Lord of the Rings films have flown by. However, whilst everyone is older and more experienced, the question remains; has Peter Jackson ceased to be great filmmaker? His immediate follow up to the epic trilogy was the similarly sprawling and ambitious King Kong (2005), but there was also the entirely unlovely The Lovely Bones (2010), a tonal mess that missed its target so completely that, had he seen it, Legolas would have vomited up his lembas bread with disgust.
This time round we are following the story of Bilbo in his younger years (played by British actor Martin Freeman). One day he is unexpectedly visited by Gandalf the Grey, a liaison which leads Bilbo into joining a company of 13 dwarves lead by the legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) with the sole aim of reclaiming the lost dwarven treasure of Erebor from the malicious dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) who dwells in the Lonely Mountains. This inevitably leads them on an epic adventure during which they travel through treacherous lands swarming with goblins and orcs, deadly wargs and giant spiders, shapeshifters and sorcerers that will ultimately lead to Baggins' meeting with Gollum himself and the finding of the One Ring - how much of this will concern the plot of the first film is still unclear.
'The Scouring of the Shire'; five words that make many a Tolkien completest tear apart their anorak with inconsolable rage. Jackson's decision to leave it out of his adaptation of The Return of the King (2003) was indeed a controversial one, but nevertheless done so with the medium of film in mind. No one should expect The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be a page-for-page adaptation of Tolkien's much-loved book, and neither should it be. It's always hard to create a completely satisfying film from a literary source without either compromising on literary purity or cinematic punch, even harder when you are splitting a book in two. Here's to hoping that the final edit strikes a happy balance.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey therefore faces an expectant, yet ultimately tough crowd. As the excitement builds and builds over the next year the more it will have to live up to. This Christmas will see the release of the first trailer and will surely mark the foundations for a year of anticipation.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is due for release in UK cinemas on 14 December, 2012. See below for #4 of Jackson's production diaries from the set of the film.