Director Peter Jackson's mammoth adaptation of JRR Tolkien's epic fantasy takes us back sixty years before the Lord of the Rings trilogy to The Hobbit. Martin Freeman gamely plays Bilbo Baggins, a stay-at-home sort who is tempted by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to join a group of dwarves heading off to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor. Joining LOTR stalwarts such as Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Christopher Lee as Saruman is Richard Armitage as the warrior Thorin Oakenshield. The new quest sees them clashing arms with Orcs, a shady new villain in The Necromancer and that precious old nemesis Gollum.
How do you follow a stunning adventure film series that caught both the public and critical imagination, took almost $3bn at the box office and even landed eleven Oscars?
Well, the answer is you don't - you make an adventure trilogy set six decades before The Lord of the Rings, chuck in a few familiar faces and batter audiences with state-of-the-art SFX.
The freshest face here is Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm in LOTR), an amiably hesitant home bird never happier than when puffing on a pipe and reading books in The Shire.
So it's bit of a surprise when he's persuaded by Gandalf The Grey (McKellen) to join what appears a suicide mission alongside 13 squabbling dwarves to grasp back Erebor, a lost kingdom grabbed by the terrifying dragon Smaug.
In their favour they're led by the Aragorn-esque Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage)...but the downside is they're up against Orcs led by a one-armed nutter, vengeful goblins (fat) headed by Barry Humphries' Goblin King and a sinister wrong 'un known only as The Necromancer.
There's none of the shock of the new that thrillingly accompanied The Lord of The Rings here - the narrative has a similar arc, many of the New Zealand locations are familiar and even Gollum (Andy Serkis) is present and incorrect as the crawling, schizophrenic trouble-maker.
Yet Jackson remains a master storyteller, putting down faint trails that will be picked up in the next two instalments, thrillingly overseeing the action sequences and - in an inspired move - casting Freeman, who brings warmth and integrity to the role.
His decision to film at 48 frames a second is questionable - the resulting high definition is unforgiving: the sets often look like sets and certain scenes appear unrealistic. Elsewhere, convincing peril is reduced to a minimum with Gandalf's constant ability to pull something from out of his wizard's hat.
Yet there is much detail to glory in and the final third sees the film getting into gear after a steady build-up - the stand-off on a wooded precipice is Jackson firing on all creative cylinders.
So it's a promising start...but where it's going to in the two remaining movies is anybody's guess.