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This publicity film image released by Warner Bros. shows Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a scene from the fantasy adventure "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (James Fisher / Warner Bros. via AP)
Rated PG-13 for bloodless but intense fantasy violence.
The arrival of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a textbook case of Hollywood's perverse obsession with overkill.
Consider: Each volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy merited a single overlong movie. But "The Hobbit," Tolkien's first Middle-earth novel set 60 years before LOTR — and the slimmest volume by far, written for his children — will become three overlong movies.
The first, clocking in at 170 minutes, quickly reminded me of why I felt exhausted with this franchise by the time the LOTR trilogy ended. It has a number of borderline-superfluous tangents that easily could be tightened to make this film 140 minutes without losing much, if anything.
A very early scene, for example, has a mob of rough, uncouth dwarves invading the cozy hobbit hole of fussy, unassuming Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Sing it with me: There's Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofor, Bombur, Kili, Fili, Oin, Gloin, Nori, Dori, Ori, Winken, Blinken, Nod, Dopey, Sneezy … oh, never mind.
At the behest of Bilbo's old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the dwarves cram into Bilbo's cramped crib and turn it into a food-fight zone.
The scene grinds on forever, which might not be so bad if it developed the dwarves as distinct characters. But it doesn't; it just delays the onset of the story.
Mercifully, Bilbo eventually utters the immortal line, "I'm going on an adventure," and things begin to move a bit.
The displaced elves are on a mission to recapture their fabled homeland of Erebor, which has been invaded and torched by the mammoth dragon Smaug. Gandalf believes Bilbo has a major role to play in this quest.
And off we go, strapped in for what is, in all fairness, a series of increasingly stupendous visual spectacles. Orcs, goblins, trolls, wargs, elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, dragons — you name it, it's here. The eye candy is superb; the special effects are several levels beyond the original trilogy, which was only 10 years ago.
In fact, the last 45 minutes is an uninterrupted visual rush — huge clashing rock creatures, an intense underground battle with goblin hordes, an epic showdown on a cliff with savage orcs.
But any discussion about the look of the film must touch on Jackson's controversial decision to shoot one version (that will be widely shown) at 48 frames per second, double the longtime industry norm. It's supposed to have a more realistic look, but to my eye, it has a TV-movie-shot-on-high-res-video look. Meh.
There are also times when the motion of one or more characters looks sped-up. The combined effect is distracting; more than once, I thought to myself, "Hmm, that looked weird." Interesting experiment, but I vote no.
The bombastic effects scenes may be the big draw, but Jackson does pause now and then for character development, mainly for Bilbo. Freeman is effective in initially portraying Bilbo's unassuming shyness, then slowly peeling it away to reveal far bolder and more courageous layers — much to the character's own surprise.
My favorite such scene comes when Bilbo tumbles into a deep crevice and meets Gollum, already besotted with his "precious," the legendary ring that will cause such future havoc. They wage a battle of riddles that is among the film's eeriest — and funniest — moments.
There's also a brief detour that gathers some of Middle-earth's heavyweights for a powwow — Gandalf, royal elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond the elf king (Hugo Weaving) and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).
Galadriel's appearance will be Topic A when hardcore fantasy fans — you know who you are — commence to blowing countless hours comparing and contrasting the movie and its source book.
In fact, one friend who hadn't yet seen the film indignantly harrumphed to me that Galadriel shouldn't be in it because she's not in "The Hobbit" novel; she doesn't show up until the later LOTR books.
To each their own; that's a level of nerditude I don't visit. Books and films: different media, different narrative rules, different experiences. Demanding that a film slavishly replicate a book is silly; don't you want a few surprises?
But if you're into this deal to that depth, more power to you. I freely acknowledge that the reason Hollywood pumps these kinds of fantasy tales to such mind-numbing, multichapter proportions is precisely because there's a large hardcore audience with a nearly insatiable appetite for the product. Hey, that's why we have 17 "Harry Potter" and 23 "Twilight" flicks.
So for the next few years, we're all going on another long adventure — like it or not.