This preamble to the Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot at a photo-realistic 48 frames per second, a new projection technique employed 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. Tolkien's mythology, because it impedes the audience's ability to be transported by the imaginative, otherworldly tale.
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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 Jackson's use of the stunning New Zealand landscape, as well as his artful 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 snug 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 dwarves descend on Bilbo's 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 eventually decides tojoin their ragtag brigade. Lasting about an hour, this setup - including a prologue about the destruction of Erebor - 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 dwarves are a motley, uninteresting crew. With their interchangeable scowling faces, bulbous noses, tangled beards and names like Bofur, Bifur, Fili, Kili, Oin and Gloin, they are tough to tell apart and, hence, to care about. There was more character development among Snow White's seven whistling pals.
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.
At times, the nearly three-hour movie feels as bloated as the dwarves' bellies after their gluttonous bash at Bilbo's place.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)