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An unfantastic journey

MartFreeman as Bilbo Baggins 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.' | Warner Bros. Pictures/MGM

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." | Warner Bros. Pictures/MGM

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‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ ★★

Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood.

Rated: PG-13 for fantasy action violence and frightening images.

Length: 2 hrs., 49 min.

Updated: January 15, 2013 6:17AM



As I sunk ever deeper into my chair at the screening of the nearly three hours that is “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” with my 3-D glasses filtering every blazingly clear frame of Peter Jackson’s latest foray into Tolkien Land, the questions and notes began piling up:

♦ Bilbo loves his books. What are those books about? Are they nonfiction historical tomes? Novels? Coffee-table books about other tastefully decorated hobbit homes?

♦ What do all those trolls, elves, orcs and goblins do with their down time? They mostly seem to be waiting around for Bilbo and Co. to show up so they can duke it out.

♦ Why does Gandalf use his powers so sparingly? Seems he could put an end to a number of scrapes with a wave of that mighty stick of his.

♦ Even though we’re seeing Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel some 60 years before “The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they all look a little bit older. Even with all of today’s CG “Benjamin Button”-type magic, there are still elements of the human aging process that can’t be erased. Remember when Leonard Nimoy showed up in the latest movie version of “Star Trek” and he still had those bad false teeth?

No doubt hard-core Tolkien aficionados are racing to their keyboards to set me straight. (“You idiot! Don’t you know ANYTHING about the rules of the Istari!”) And yes, I realize we’re dealing with fantasy here; after all, Bilbo, Gandalf and the elves are on a quest to slay a gold-hoarding dragon.

I’m just saying it takes a long, long time for this “unexpected journey” to unfold.

Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy yielded 14 Oscars and nearly $3 billion in worldwide box office, and was hailed by most critics and Tolkien fans as a masterful adaptation of the legendary works. Now comes the first entry in the three-movie prequel based on Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (aka “There and Back Again”), published in 1937 as a fantasy aimed primarily at children. As prequels to legendary trilogies go, “The Hobbit” isn’t as disappointing as “The Phantom Menace,” but it does arrive with a bit of a dull thud.

The talented and likable Martin Freeman from BBC’s “The Office” plays Bilbo as the conservative, timid fussbudget he’s meant to be: a soft, middle-aged, content hobbit who wants no part of the amazing world outside his door. When Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of 13 dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s home, barging in and eating and drinking up everything in his cupboard, he’s more concerned with doilies and dishes than the mission of which they speak.

For a while, it appears as if the dinner party will never end. There’s eating and drinking and singing. And more eating and more drinking and more singing. There’s an extended dish-washing sequence, I kid you not. Finally, though, we’re on our way, off to slay the dragon.

There’s no denying the majesty in Jackson’s visuals, with that hyper-speed 3-D just adding to the fantastical splendor of it all. Whether we’re looking at the breathtaking New Zealand locales, fantastical CGI creations or a combination thereof, the screen pops with such clarity, it almost overwhelms the senses. Whether we’re welcoming a familiar face played by a talented veteran or we’re saying hello to a new character, there’s not a weak performance from anyone in the huge cast. This is big-league filmmaking, behind and in front of the camera.

The problem is the story. Jackson has taken a relatively slim children’s book and stretched it beyond the limits. He leaves almost no page unturned as the traveling adventurers encounter trolls and orcs and giants carved out from mountains. Amazing though the special effects may be, creatures that spark the imagination in a children’s book are sometimes ridiculous when given life on the big screen. Meanwhile, Bilbo remains annoying for much of the film, and most of the dwarves, save for Richard Armitage’s Thorin, lack distinctive personalities.

It’s great fun when familiar characters from the “Rings” trilogy appear, most notably Gollum, who engages in an extended game of riddles with Bilbo. Never has an actor received more praise for not being praised than Andy Serkis. At this point, his “underappreciated” work as Gollum is almost over-appreciated. But it is a marvel to behold. If you put together a list of the 100 most fascinating supporting characters in film history, that little, um, feller, would surely make the list.

Yet even the terrific, tense, eerie battle of wits between Bilbo and Gollum seems to go on forever. Throughout “The Hobbit,” it feels as if we’re looking at the rough cut of a beautiful film in which nearly every scene needs to be trimmed. The performances are uniformly fine. The visuals are gorgeous. But based on this seemingly endless first chapter, it appears Jackson made a major misstep in constructing a trilogy when one movie would have done just fine.



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