The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

More is less in Peter Jackson's gargantuan first installment of the new Tolkien trilogy.

There has almost certainly never been an adaptation of a novel more studiously, scrupulously and strenuously faithful as Peter Jackson's film of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Spending nearly three hours of screen time to visually represent every comma, period and semicolon in the first six chapters of the perennially popular 19-chapter book, Jackson and his colleagues have created a purist's delight, something the millions of die-hard fans of his Lord of the Rings trilogy will gorge upon. In pure movie terms, however, it's a bit of a slog, with an inordinate amount of exposition and lack of strong forward movement. Still, based on its maker, source and gigantic promotional campaign, this first section to the long-awaited prequel to Rings no doubt will mine equivalent amounts of box-office gold, as will its follow-ups.

If Hobbit had been filmed shortly after the book's publication in 1937 (it's a wonder that it wasn't), one easily could imagine a lively affair full of great character actors and cleverly goofy special effects that would have moved the story along in smart style in less than two hours. In Jackson's academically fastidious telling, however, it's as if The Wizard of Oz had taken nearly an hour just to get out of Kansas. There are elements in this new film that are as spectacular as much of the Rings trilogy was, but there is much that is flat-footed and tedious as well. This might be one venture where, rather than DVDs offering an "Expanded Director's Version," there might be an appetite for a "Condensed Director's Cut" in a single normal-length film.

Jackson announced his interest in filming Hobbit as early as 1995, before Rings, but was prevented from moving ahead by knotty rights issues. Once the venture came to life again, there were even more hassles involving ownership, lawsuits, studios coming and going and the initial involvement of Guillermo del Toro as director. (He eventually stepped aside but retains co-screenplay credit along with Jackson and his Rings partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.) At first proposed as a two-part saga, it then became three, following the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series to split stories into the maximum number of installments.

Then there is Jackson's decision to film not only in 3D but in 48 frames per second, double the standard number. The results are interesting and will be much-debated, but an initial comparison of the two formats weighs against the experiment; the print shown at the Warner Bros. review screening, while striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultravivid television video, paradoxically lending the film an oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home. For its part, the 24 fps 3D version had a softer, noticeably more textured image quality.

One of the reasons Hobbit is so bulked up is that Jackson has filled it out with an enormous amount of backstory relevant to the characters at hand. In doing so, he is able to provide a titanic opening battle sequence, one in which a wealthy ancient kingdom of dwarves alongside the Lonely Mountain is decimated by fearsome giant trolls. One of the only survivors is the heir to the throne, Thorin, whose effort to reclaim the kingdom will occupy the thrust of the story.

First, however, there is the hokey business of introducing the motley crew of knights who will undertake this daunting task, 13 dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), whose facial hair looks more imposing than their musculature. They are guided by the towering wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, back for another tour of Middle-earth), who approaches the mild-mannered Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to propose that he "share in an adventure," the nature of which is unfamiliar to the pointy-eared stay-at-home.

The gaggle of uninvited guests makes themselves right at home in Bilbo's cozy underground abode, making short work of his food and drink and in every way behaving presumptuously. A little of their dwarf talk goes a long way, and a filmmaker intent on getting his show on the road would have dispensed with this repast in half the time or less; it's not as if there's going to be a quiz on the identity of each dwarf before the journey can proceed. Some of Jackson's blocking, setups and compositions in this long introduction are downright clumsy, in the service of notably lame japes and gags.

More backstory battle footage spikes things up again as the long journey begins in earnest. An initial glimpse of what the little guys are up against comes in the form of three giant trolls, who make off with a couple of ponies to eat and indulge in a Cockney-flavored Three Stooges routine as they prepare to roast the dwarves.

At length, the sojourners arrive at Rivendell, home of Gandalf's friend Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and, in cameos, Queen Galadriel (a returning Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). Gandalf and the dwarves receive help with maps and a key at this stop in order to penetrate the cave full of gold guarded by the dragon Smaug.

But the way ahead becomes increasingly treacherous, what with mountains that abruptly come alive as heaps of rock that battle one another; the malignant Gollum (the again superb Andy Serkis, in eye-bulging Peter Lorre mode), who engages Bilbo in a winner-take-all riddle contest; and, quite scarily, repulsive trolls who give chase on ferocious, wolflike wargs.

It takes Jackson a long time to build up a head of steam, but he delivers the goods in the final stretch, which is paralleled by the hitherto ineffectual Bilbo beginning to come into his own as a character. One of Tolkien's shrewdest strategies in writing Hobbit and designing it to appeal to both youngsters and adults was making Bilbo a childlike grown-up who matures and assumes responsibilities he initially perceives are beyond him. Freeman, who at first seems bland in the role, similarly grows into the part, giving hope that the character will continue to blossom in the two forthcoming installments.

The dwarves are pretty interchangeable, though Armitage has a strong bearing as the royal heir. There's nothing McKellen can do to surprise anymore as Gandalf, but his presence is reassuring to the audience.

In terms of production values, Hobbit is comparable to what Jackson and his team accomplished on the Rings outings; he has reunited with such key trilogy collaborators as cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah (supervising art director and set decorator on the Rings films) and masses of effects artists and technicians from his Weta shop. Because of technological advances and 3D technology, in some ways the new film moves beyond into new territory, and there assuredly will be more spectacle in the next two installments, which will be subtitled The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again (the subtitle of Tolkien's entire novel).

The score by Howard Shore, who wrote the music for the trilogy, effectively backs the action, nearly every second of it.

The end credits run 16 minutes, certainly a record or close to it, bringing the total running time to six minutes short of three hours.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 14 (Warner Bros.)
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood
Director: Peter Jackson Rated PG-13, 174 minutes