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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' takes some wrong turns

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First installment of trilogy strong in spots, but overlong

Certain films, by their very nature, are doomed to be disappointments.

Director Peter Jackson is once again taking audiences on a lengthy journey through the lands of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth. The director of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy has brought us the eagerly-anticipated first installment of 'The Hobbit.' This film, subtitled 'An Unexpected Journey,' leads off a brand new trilogy based on Tolkien's novel.

The expectations for this film are high perhaps unreasonably so. While the hype machine hasn't quite reached the expected fever pitch, there has been a good deal of anticipation. Additionally, 'The Hobbit' isn't quite 'The Lord of the Rings' it is a single novel of barely 300 pages. Turning such a book into a trilogy of eight-plus hours gives the appearance of a money grab. These are the factors that can lead to disappointment.

Even by the standards of expository first films, 'Unexpected Journey' falls a bit flat.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, TV's 'Sherlock') is the titular Hobbit, living a comfortably dull life in his home in the Shire. That dullness is soon interrupted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, 'The Academy'), who brings a dozen dwarves to Bilbo's door a group led by displaced king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, TV's 'Strike Back').

Bilbo is drafted into the company as their burglar, and the group sets out to make their way to the kingdom of Erebor a kingdom that was lost when the dragon Smaug claimed the mountain for its own. Despite his misgivings, Bilbo is swept up into an adventure that involves orcs and trolls and other opponents.

And there's a lot of walking lots and lots of walking.

The biggest problem with 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is that it takes almost three hours to tell a story (or section of story) that could easily be told in under two. That sense of padded overinflation permeates the first two-thirds of the film. It's bloated with unnecessary (albeit beautiful) wide shots and scenes that overstay their welcomes. Jackson's efforts to recreate the sweeping scope of the earlier trilogy only serve to point out that this is a much more compact tale. The occasional reappearances of 'LOTR' characters mostly feel forced and unnecessary.

That being said, the final hour is quite good - action-packed and filled with that sort of hyperkinetic franticness that Jackson does so well (although there's an occasional flatness to the CGI that sometimes distracts). The film comes alive in a way that the blandly expository beginning never achieves; we finally start to feel that sense of epicness that Jackson has clearly spent the previous 90-plus minutes trying to evoke.

Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo is a highlight. While 'The Hobbit' is clearly striving for grandeur in many ways, Freeman gives Bilbo a quiet reserve, allowing the character a certain dignity that strikes a sharp counterpoint especially to the wealth of dwarven slapstick. His interaction with Gollum (Andy Serkis, 'The Adventures of Tin Tin') toward the end of the film is especially effective.

Ian McKellen looks to be having a heck of a time as he reprises his role as Gandalf. There's a subtle lightness to him that makes the character particularly engaging. And Richard Armitage's solemn Thorin seems to carry the most gravitas of anyone in the film though that might be due in part to the almost relentless silliness of his fellow dwarves.

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is a very good two-hour film buried within a meandering 166 minutes. While the obvious padding doesn't completely overwhelm the movie, we should hope that the next two installments are a bit more streamlined. Peter Jackson needs to stop trying so hard and let this great tale tell itself.

3 out of 5

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