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Movie review: Overstuffed 'Hobbit' does dazzle visually

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Film review
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
What: Based on the J.R.R. Tolkien book, the film follows a young hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, as he begins a quest to retake a dwarf mountain kingdom from a dragon.
Where playing: Starts midnight Dec. 13 at Carmike-Dupont Road, Carmike-Jefferson Pointe, Coldwater, Huntington 7. Opens Friday at Cinema Grill, Strand in Kendallville
Running time: 2 hours, 49 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
2 1/2 stars out of four

Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 12:01 am

Editor's note: We published the full review of “The Hobbit” last Thursday. We are offering a recap today because the film opens at midnight today at local movie theaters.

Yet here goes: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is stuffed with Hollywood's latest technology: 3-D, high-speed projection and Dolby's Atmos surround sound system. The result is some eye candy that truly dazzles and some that utterly distracts, at least in its test-run of 48 frames a second, double the projection rate that has been standard since silent-film days.

It's also overstuffed with, well, stuff. Prologues and sidestepping backstory. Long, boring councils among dwarves, wizards and elves. A shallow blood feud extrapolated from sketchy appendices to J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings” to give the film a bad guy.

“An Unexpected Journey” also draws out — to nearly three hours — Tolkien's brisk story of intrepid little hobbit Bilbo Baggins by adding scenes better left for DVD extras.

Two more parts are coming, so we won't know how the whole story comes together until the finale arrives in summer 2014.

Jackson and life partner Fran Walsh, along with screenwriting partners Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro — who once was attached to direct “The Hobbit,” with Jackson producing — have meticulously mined Tolkien references to events that never played out in any of the books (stuff the filmmakers call the “in-between bits”).

With that added material, they're building a much bigger epic than Tolkien's book, the unexpected journey of homebody Bilbo (Martin Freeman, with Ian Holm reprising his “Lord of the Rings” role as older Bilbo).

Bilbo has no desire to hit the road after wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a company of dwarves turn up to enlist him on a quest to retake a dwarf mountain kingdom from the dragon that decimated it.

Yet off he goes, encountering trolls, goblins, orcs and a grisly guy named Gollum (Andy Serkis). Improved by a decade of visual-effects advances, Gollum solidifies his standing as one of the creepiest movie creatures ever.

Richard Armitage debuts as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, ennobled from a fairly comical figure in Tolkien's text to a brooding warrior king in the mold of Viggo Mortensen from the “Rings” trilogy.

While there are plenty of orc skewerings and goblin beheadings, the action is lighter and more cartoonish than that of “The Lord of the Rings.” Still, much of it is silly fun, particularly a battle along a maze of footbridges suspended throughout a goblin cave.

The potential sea change with “The Hobbit” is Jackson's 48-frame rate. Most theaters, however, are not yet equipped for that speed, so the film largely will play at the standard 24 frames a second.

Proponents, including James Cameron, say higher frame rates provide more lifelike images, sharpen 3-D effects, and lessen or eliminate a flickering effect known as “strobing” that comes with camera motion. I saw the movie first at 24 frames a second and then at 48, and they're absolutely right that higher speeds clarify the picture. And the panoramas are like Middle-earth actually come to life, as though you're standing on a hill looking down at the hobbits' Shire.

But with great clarity comes greater vision. At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, sometimes feeling so intimate it's like watching live theater. That close-up perspective also brings out the fakery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film.

The technology may improve a story's translation to the screen. There's just not that much story to Tolkien's “Hobbit,” though. Jackson is stretching a breezy 300 pages to the length of a Dickens miniseries, and those in-between bits really stick out in part one.