It's a visually resplendent Middle-earth that director Peter Jackson has re-created in The Hobbit. But just how captivating viewers find the movie (HH½ out of four; rated PG-13) may depend on which format they watch.
This preamble to the Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot at a photo-realistic 48 frames per second, a new projection technique used by Jackson that moves at twice the speed of traditional film and captures twice the amount of information. Consequently, the picture is crisper and sharper. But the hyper-realism is not an asset for the fantasy film, based on J.R.R. Tolkiens mythology, because it impedes the audiences ability to be transported by the imaginative, otherworldly tale.
The technique seems more suited to a documentary about the making of the movie than a whimsically inventive tale. The jarring clarity of 48 fps available in about 500 theaters pulls the viewer out of the absorbing, if occasionally languorous, action-adventure saga.
The Lord of the Rings films appealed to vast audiences because of Jacksons use of the New Zealand landscape, as well as his blend of CGI, live action and performance-capture technology. Those elements are in place again, but the story feels less substantial than the Lord of the Rings tales.
Four performances stand out: Martin Freeman plays the affable young Bilbo Baggins; Andy Serkis reprises his iconic role as the tragic, schizoid Gollum; Richard Armitage makes his debut as the stubbornly proud dwarf king Thorin; and Ian McKellan reappears as the sagely droll wizard, Gandalf.
Bilbo is enjoying life in his hobbit hole when Gandalf pops by. He urges Bilbo to embark on an adventure, but the hobbit is a homebody who prefers his books, well-stocked pantry and warm hearth. Soon, a band of unruly dwarfs descend on Bilbos cozy domicile. Like sailors on leave crossed with beer-swilling frat guys, they engage in rowdy antics that become grating. In between tossing plates, banging heads and stuffing their faces, they burst into song. They need a light-footed burglar to assist in the quest to reclaim their gold-laden homeland, Erebor. Bilbo decides to join their brigade. Lasting about an hour, this setup is more tedious than illuminating.
Once the actual journey kicks off, The Hobbit becomes a more exciting experience, filled with hungry trolls, vicious goblins and a vengeful, one-armed orc. It bogs down in a detour to scenic Rivendell, the Shangri-La-like home of the elves.
Things perk up when Bilbo becomes trapped in a cavern and meets the bug-eyed Gollum. The pair face off in an exuberant game of dueling riddles. Gollum is presented with more visual detail thanks to technical improvements and Serkis performance is spot-on.
But the dwarfs are an uninteresting crew. With their interchangeable faces, bulbous noses, beards and names like Bofur, Bifur, Fili, Kili, Oin and Gloin, they are tough to tell apart and, hence, to care about.
It's an enthralling universe that Jackson understandably seems loath to leave. But while the production design is impeccable and the journey intermittently involving, The Hobbit is overlong and lacks the enchantment of the Lord of the Rings films.
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At times, the nearly three-hour movie feels as bloated as the dwarves' bellies after their gluttonous bash at Bilbo's place.
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