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'Hobbit': A Familiar Ring

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"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a three-hour dorkfest.

That's meant as praise.

Peter Jackson's first chapter in a planned film trilogy hits all the notes needed to please both hard-core Tolkien nerds and casual lovers of his "Lord of the Rings" films.

He also adds a dash of intrigue for cinema geeks interested in the next wave of movie projection.

The film is frequently gorgeous, technologically adventurous and eventually thrilling

It's also bloated, repetitive, and -- especially at first -- slow going.

Really.

Slow.

Going.

For those who aren't hep to the latest happenings in Middle-earth, Jackson is splitting up Tolkien's first novel into three movies.

This first installment covers roughly the first 100 pages of the 300-page book and clocks in at 2 hours, 50 minutes. You can read it faster than you can watch it, but fans of the multi-million-dollar Oscar-winning franchise know what they're in for. Each film is a marathon, not a sprint -- truly, people have run actual marathons in less time than it takes to watch any one of them.

So when told the film takes 45 minutes to get through the first chapter of the book, many of us say, "Shut up and take our money."

Besides, as Ian McKellen's wizard Gandalf says, "All good stories deserve embellishment."

Some 60 years before the events of "The Fellowship of the Ring," Gandalf visits the young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman of the BBC's "Sherlock" and "The Office") and asks if the little guy is up for an adventure.

Bilbo assures him he most certainly is not.

Hobbits, you see, like to sit and smoke pipe weed at home. That way they can be close to the pantry when they are stricken by the munchies.

Bilbo's protestations don't stop the old man from telling an unwieldy number of dwarves to invade Bilbo's hobbit hole. They raid his food stores, throw around the dishware and sing some froggy-sounding dwarf songs.

There by Bilbo's hearth, the dwarves conspire with their Moses-figure Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). They'll journey to their ancestral home of Erebor and reclaim their kingdom from the dragon Smaug.

With some coercion that's both passive and aggressive, Bilbo relents and joins in the adventure.

Along the way there will be Orcs, trolls, goblins, elves, giants and lots and lots of walking.

So much walking.

Prequels aren't necessarily about showing what happened. We know what happened. Indiana Jones lives to fight the Nazis, Vito Andolini becomes Don Corleone and the darn dirty apes take over the world.

Instead, prequels are about how something happened. How does Bilbo know Gandalf? How did he get the ring?

And things happen in "The Hobbit" much like how they happened in "Fellowship."

The gang walks along a precarious mountain ledge again. An unseen villain grows more powerful again. A threatening mega-Orc chases our heroes down a mountainside ... again.

Some of this is thrilling to devotees. Subplots, footnotes and minor points from the book and the author's other works are expanded (see sidebar on this page).

But one can't help but compare "Hobbit" to the first "Star Wars" prequel. "The Phantom Menace" also started at a glacial pace, repeated many of the same story beats and ended similarly to the series' first installment. ("Hobbit" also has its own Jar Jar Binks -- the cross-eyed wizard Radagast the Brown, played by an over-the-top Sylvester McCoy.)

True, Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" before the "LOTR" trilogy. But in fleshing out "The Hobbit" to make three movies, Jackson has overlain elements onto the basic structure that are simply repetitive.

The film's tone also wobbles occasionally -- the book is essentially light-hearted kiddie lit, but many of the more threatening scenes are too dark and menacing for many parents' comfort.

There also is a lot of bloodless and strangely consequence-free violence. The sheer number of bodies slashed, gouged, stabbed and sent falling to their doom in a goblin-infested cave might rival the body count in "The Expendables 2."

And it's flabby. There's an unnecessary cameo in the film's overly talky prologue. Jackson shows us countless extraneous panoramas and repeatedly cuts to multiple close-ups of dwarves reacting to something. Several times after some sort of ridiculously dangerous moment, Gandalf counts the dwarves as though he's a flabbergasted grade-school teacher organizing a field trip.

Technologically, however, the film is nearly perfect. There has been much hand-wringing and social-media nattering about Jackson's decision to shoot the film at a higher frame rate. (Most films are shot at 24 frames per second; "The Hobbit" is shot at 48. James Cameron plans to shoot the next "Avatar" at 60). At first it's distracting, but you quickly get used to it.

To nitpick, the picture is so clear that the seams show on some of the makeup and computer-generated imagery. Some fake noses don't match skin tones. An Orc chase across a sunlit plain looks about as realistic as a local TV news weather map. Nonetheless, it's the technical aspects that make "The Hobbit" required viewing in a theater.

The performances are all as expected. We've seen McKellen play Gandalf for so many years, it's hard to see if he's acting. The dwarves range from super-serious to super-silly.

Freeman doesn't look much like the 111-year-old Bilbo (Ian Holm) from "Fellowship," but his comic timing and sense of bewilderment are welcome in the face of all the sobersides and sourpusses. And the scenes Bilbo shares with the returning ring-coveting villain Gollum (another excellent motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis) are the film's quietest moments, and the most menacing.

Whether it's the familiarity of the world or the timelessness of the heroic journey story, these arduous Middle-earth walkabouts are overall enjoyable. Generations of Tolkien fans have spent years immersing themselves in the minutiae of the author's writings. And fans of the "LOTR" movies don't mind spending one extra minute in this very familiar world.

Think of it more like an amusement park than a movie. We've returned, willing to endure the long waits for something exciting to happen, because something exciting eventually does happen. There's always a payoff to the ponderousness.

3-D or not 3-D? HFR or not HFR?

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is definitely worth the higher ticket price for 3-D. We recommend seeking out a theater with a high-frame-rate (HFR) projector. Cinemark Merriam and AMC's Barrywoods, Independence and Studio 30 theaters are showing HFR in just one auditorium each -- Studio 30's is the IMAX screen. (Remember, a 3-D screening isn't always an HFR screening.) The HFR 3-D version we saw at Cinemark Merriam was crisp, bright, colorful and nearly blur-free, and the 3-D was clear and vibrant. There's so much detail in many of the frames it's hard to take it all in.

What others are saying

-- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: "In terms of images alone, this is one of the most beautiful fantasy films ever made."

-- Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: "Just as I felt I was hitting a Middle-earth wall, out pops a savior to remind the faithful of what we loved about 'LOTR' in the first place. I'm talking, of course, about the great Gollum."

-- David Germain, The Associated Press: "'I do believe the worst is behind us,' Bilbo remarks as 'An Unexpected Journey' ends. From a hobbit's lips to a filmmaker's ears. Let's hope Jackson has the goods to improve on a so-so start."

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