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‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’: A Long, Strange Cinematic Trip

After years of stops, starts, Barnum-esque hype and rumors of game-changing technology, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has finally arrived, not on wings of gossamer fancy but with a hairy-footed thud.

It’s a bloated, shockingly tedious trudge that looks both overproduced and unforgivably cheesy. As the first of director Peter Jackson’s trilogy — the prequel to his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings — it may well please the franchise’s most devoted fans, who will no doubt savor the chance to traipse through J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative landscape populated by dwarfs, elves, goblins, trolls and the appealingly winsome title character. An Unexpected Journey even features a few especially beloved Rings favorites, including the pallid, stringy-haired Gollum (Andy Serkis) and elven beauty Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), not to mention the beatific wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen).

But purely on its own terms, An Unexpected Journey can’t be seen as anything but a disappointment, a dreary, episodic series of lumbering walk-talk-fight sequences that often looks less like genuine cinema than a large-scale video game, its high-def aesthetic and mushy close-ups perfectly suited to its presumed end-use on a living room wall or iPhone.

It all starts promisingly enough, with the Hobbit-in-question, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), at home in his cozily appointed Hobbit hole, recalling an episode 60 years ago when he was coaxed out of his comfort zone by the prodigiously bearded and behatted Gandalf. Flashing back six decades, An Unexpected Journey takes up at that juncture, when Gandalf first visits the shy and happily settled Bilbo (played as a young Hobbit by the wonderfully expressive Martin Freeman), later inviting a company of dispossessed dwarfs who long to return to their native kingdom on Lonely Mountain.

An Unexpected Journey chronicles that mission — for which Bilbo is enlisted as a “burglar” —and which here primarily entails the dwarfs’ evasion and escape from marauding orcs, led by Azog (Manu Bennett), who nurses a lethal grudge toward the dwarfs’ doughty leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage). Working from a script he wrote with Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson spends a great deal of time on back stories and explanation, which results in lots of windy expository speeches and character introductions but not much by way of genuine emotional involvement or dynamism. The bemused Bilbo spends most of the movie’s first half observing, as other company members talk among themselves, only beginning to come into his own after a pivotal encounter with the aforementioned Gollum.

Purists may note that Jackson has performed some clever literary legerdemain in switching characters from book to book (a wizard called Radagast does some impressive volume-hopping here). But he also seems to have ginned up the action simply for its own sake, such as when two mountains come to rock ‘em-sock ‘em life in an earth-shattering mano-a-mano that looks like one of Ray Harryhausen’s rejected outtakes. As the conflicts grow more vicious and barbaric, the creatures of An Unexpected Journey grow more unsavory, culminating in a face-off between Thorin’s band and the thoroughly repulsive, scrotal-throated Great Goblin (Barry Humphries).

The cumulative effect is not unlike how an observer once described war — in this case long, monotonous stretches interrupted by moments of bombastic, bone-crunching nastiness.

It’s purely a matter of taste whether this world is one you want to inhabit for nearly three hours. And it might be a function of age and aesthetic expectations whether the super-high-definition digital technology Jackson used to film — sorry, capture — An Unexpected Journey strikes your eye as dazzlingly crisp and realistic or more akin to the visual grammar of a giant Teletubbies episode. There are moments when the combination of high-definition and 3-D lend the film an appropriately pop-up storybook quality, such as when the dwarfs visit the picturesque elven outpost of Rivendell. But too often, Jackson’s awkward staging and swishing, panning, careening camera work make An Unexpected Journey look like a rehearsal he’s watching through his video monitor.

It could turn out that An Unexpected Journey is the weakest of this trilogy, the necessary preamble before less-stultifying action and more engaging character development ensue. But, to paraphrase the sweet and stout-hearted Bilbo himself, this adventure won’t just make you late for dinner. It might make you miss breakfast and lunch, too. Only the most dedicated Middle-earthers will find that the hunger pangs are worth it.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (PG-13, 170 minutes) contains frightening images and extended sequences of intense fantasy-action violence.