The idea of shooting and showing the "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in a fantastically fast 48 frames per second probably sounded good in preproduction meetings.
But shown on a giant theater screen in 48-fps format, Peter Jackson's fourth movie based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth stories looks cheap and shallow and bathes every scene in a glaring artificiality that makes its unbelievable world simply nonbelievable.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"★ ★
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 166 minutes
Even if you avoid the 48-fps version of "The Hobbit" and opt to see it in regular 24 fps (check your local theaters to see which version they're showing), Jackson's prequel to his amazing, award-laden "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a sloggy trudge by generic characters through endless travelogues, tiresome combat sequences and IQ-challenged moments in which main characters lack the smarts to act with common sense.
This critique of "The Hobbit" isn't to dissuade anyone from seeing it. If you're a Tolkien fan, you must see it, just as fans had to see Ralph Bakshi's abortive two-part 1978 rotoscopic animated adaptation of "Lord of the Rings Part 1." (It was so badly received that part 2 never materialized.)
Jackson's "The Hobbit" begins with ... wait. Actually, it has three beginnings, two more than it really needs.
Anyway, 60 years before the events in "Lord of the Rings," Gandalf the wizard (reprised by Ian McKellen, born for this role) arrives at the house of ultimate hobbit homebody Bilbo Baggins ("The Office" star Martin Freeman).
Gandalf has called a massive dwarves meeting at Bilbo's quaint little Shire cottage without his knowledge. (Fortunately, Bilbo has stocked his pantry with enough food and drink to weather several nuclear strikes.)
The dwarves, led by warrior king Thorin (Richard Armitage), are keen to travel and take back their gold-laden kingdom/fortress Erebor from Smaug, the giant, fire-breathing dragon that usurped it.
Bilbo wants none of this action, but the dwarves persuade him to become their "burglar," a small, undetectable character capable of carrying out sneaky jobs.
The quest begins, and "The Hobbit" enters familiar Jackson territory (shot mostly against New Zealand's bizarre, twisted vistas) with dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf on an danger-fraught journey to Lonely Mountain.
Along the way, Bilbo crosses paths with a much younger, scarier Gollum (reprised by Andy Serkis) and makes his first acquaintance with the evil ring that he discovers after Gollum loses it, right before Gollum really loses it.
"The Hobbit" bears the unmistakable stylistic stamp of Jackson, who more or less replicates the epic sweep of his earlier trilogy (although it would have been fascinating to see where originally attached director Guillermo del Toro would have taken the project).
After a ridiculously slow and bum-testing start, "The Hobbit" shifts into forward movement at about the 40-minute mark, then leans on a couple of showcase special effects sequences to carry the tale.
The best one occurs when the travelers cross bleak and black mountains that come to life as animated rock fighters, beating each other up like stone-faced WWE wrestlers.
Then it's back to mostly superfluous nods to future "Rings" characters played by Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee, and more trudging and fighting, and Thorin squaring off with an armless orc to supply a personal vendetta subplot not in Tolkien's original story.
Apparently, the closer characters get to Erebor, the more common sense they lose.
Take the climactic fight scene in which brave Bilbo risks his life to rescue Thorin from his orc tormentor. (Hey, Bil! You have the ring to render yourself invisible! Why not use it?)
Or later, when Gandalf and the dwarves ride a flock of giant birds to a place a couple of miles from Erebor. (Hey, guys! Why not have the birds take you all the way to Erebor and avoid the walk?)
I know. I know. "The Hobbit" is a fantasy.
And if it's any indication of the quality of the next two planned sequels -- "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" will come out in 2013, "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" in 2014 -- I may well put Aragorn's Anduril to my throat.