Unexpected visitors: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, centre) gets an offer he just about refuses from a merry band of dwarves in this Lord of the Rings prequel.
Well, it's finally here. Now that we've had the odd handful of years to properly digest Kiwi director Peter Jackson's take on JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - the Saxon-tinged elves-and-hobbits trilogy which inadvertently gave birth to the 'Fantasy' section in bookshops - the (inevitable?) prequel machine has been set in motion, with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, hitting cinemas this week.
By all accounts, 'An Unexpected Journey's initial production stages have augured something entirely different than what most fans may have been expecting.
To wit: it was originally going to be directed by Mexican dark fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro, for a start, and it was only recently announced that Tolkien's slim children's book was to be blown up into a film trilogy to match its predecessor saga.
However, by the time the company credits dissolve back into the familiar bucolic sight of the Shire - the sleepy dwelling-place of the titular hobbits - it's clear that it's back to business as usual for Peter Jackson and co.
But barring a brief prologue which occurs mere hours before the opening of 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring - and which sees Bilbo Baggins as we know him (played by Ian Holm) pen the finishing touches of his memoir, to pass on to his nephew, the 'Ring-bearer-to-be', Frodo (Elijah Wood) - Jackson rewinds the action to 60 years earlier, when Bilbo, now embodied by The Office and Sherlock's Martin Freeman, has a surprise visit from the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and gets offered a proposal he declines promptly: to embark on an adventure with a pack of dwarves keen to reclaim homeland - and a generous plunder of gold - after it was stolen by the villainous dragon Smaug.
Despite his gentle exterior, however, Gandalf is not one to take no for an answer, and before he can say 'pipe weed', Bilbo is invaded by a merry band of hardy dwarves who it transpires - after they've plundered his pantry and made a right mess of his neat little hobbit hole - are under the impression that Bilbo is very much on board with Gandalf's plan: to serve as the 'burglar' of the group owing to his small size which, according to the old wizard, makes him an ideal candidate for any covert operations, should the need for them arise.
But even after Bilbo reluctantly accepts the offer (the real reason, an inspired thematic upgrade on Tolkien's slight novel, is revealed only at the end), the quest turns out to be far more than Bilbo, or any of the dwarves, for that matter, have bargained for, and whispers of a 'Necromancer' working in the shadows are disturbing even the highest echelons of Middle Earth...
If this sounds like a heady, somewhat bloated brew, that's because it is. When it came to adapting The Lord of the Rings, Jackson's challenge was to squeeze Tolkien's doorstopper trilogy into film-friendly format. But by opting to stretch out The Hobbit into three films too, his problem - a self-inflicted one, we mustn't forget - is precisely the opposite: how do you convincingly pad out what is essentially a glorified bedtime story into a vibe that matches the epic scale of the 'Rings saga?
To be fair, lack of material certainly isn't the problem - Tolkien went on something of an obsessive fantasist rampage after LOTR was published, adding historical details to his fictional world, some of which happened concurrently with The Hobbit, if 'off-screen' for the narrative of the original book.
But does Jackson mesh in this extra material - some of which is invented, some culled from appendices and notes which link The Hobbit to the 'Rings saga - in a streamlined way? Yes and no. He's certainly a filmmaker who never shies away from going large, but the lighter jaunt required for this particular story doesn't always agree with him.
This is not to say that he doesn't handle the heavy seasoning of humour adequately - the excellently-cast band of dwarves take care of that - but that some of the action sequences do feel laboured. What would have been minor, knee-bruising melees in 'Rings are shot in full 'epic' mode, and some of the incidents - such as the unpleasant run-in with a pack of (Cockney?) trolls - betray the source material's fairy tale origins, making it something of a mismatch for Jackson's meticulously realised, gritty-as-it-can-be pseudo-medieval world.
(A word on the 48-frames-per-second bonanza. Yes, it offers a crisper picture but, because it's the preferred technique of HD TV creations, it also makes everything look like a bit of a soap opera. Approach with caution.)
And yet, and yet.
The fact remains that there are more sequences here that'll take your breath away than ones that'll leave you cold, bored or uncomprehending, and the second half successfully zips by in a merry trot, to show us something far more anarchic - and blatantly 'fun' - than the high fantasy epic stylings we're grown accustomed to from the 'Rings saga.
This is largely thanks to the still-strong returning cast - namely McKellen, with nice cameos from Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee - with Andy Serkis's Smeagol/Gollum filling in the most pivotal moment of the saga, and showing off the tragic character's most vulnerable moments.
This is, however, Freeman's show - as it should be. The instantly likeable actor was born to play Bilbo, his fretting and fumbling a perfect match for Bilbo's accidental heroism.
Though it feels as if the best is yet to come, Jackson has given us a fun adventure to enjoy over the holidays... and plenty to look forward to in the years to come.