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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' lacks substance

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(L-r) MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo Baggins and IAN McKELLEN as Gandalf in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY," a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

(PG-13)

2 stars out of 4

Of all the many double-edged entertainment swords, timing is both the most precious and unforgiving. When a movie comes out is nearly as important as its quality and in the case of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" it couldn't be any better or any worse. Caught up in one form or another of development hell dating back to 1995, "TH:AUJ" is only seeing light of day after nearly a decade of nasty studio politics, creative roadblocks and unbridled greed have subsided.

Long before the third installment ("The Return of the King") of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy walked away with a record-tying 11 Oscars, producer/director Peter Jackson was faced with an unenviable, literally impossible task: coming up with something equally lucrative and critically-acclaimed. With "The Hobbit" languishing and going nowhere, Jackson hit it big (at least commercially) with "King Kong" then treaded major water with the odd and squirm-inducing "The Lovely Bones."

After a possible collaboration with chum Guillermo del Toro fizzled and the political wrangling finally ended, Jackson set forth with "The Hobbit," a prequel of sorts to "The Lord of the Rings." Originally conceived as a single film, Jackson decided to make "The Hobbit" into a trilogy -- a move which could lead to considerable commercial and critical negative fallout.

Instead of adapting three novels into nine hours of movies, Jackson and his writers are taking a relatively slim (300 or so pages) book and making it the same length. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out this is going to require a whole lot of extraneous padding and -- this is very important -- making up stuff that wasn't included in author J.R.R. Tolkien's book.

Taking creative license with source material is nothing new but in the case of Tolkien, it is playing with fire. Tolkien fans are extremely well-versed regarding the content of the books and because Jackson stayed so faithful to the "Lord of the Rings," they were thrilled beyond repair. He "kept it real." What these fervent throngs are about to get is three hours worth of filet mignon stretched out with six hours of pink slime extender. They won't be happy.

For the first hour, "TH:AUJ" plays out like a cross between "Animal House" and a Marx Brothers flick. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has been tapped by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to round out a troupe of roughly a dozen dwarves on a mission to regain their homeland. The dwarves are ravenous, loaded-for-bear, redemptive types that are low on hygiene who all but eat Bilbo out of house and home. In the wake of a meal that could sink a regular army, they smoke pipes and produce an array of bodily function noises that are more than out of place in what should be a family-friendly period fantasy piece.

Because it is set in such close quarters and relies relatively little on CGI, the opening salvo goes far in showing off Jackson's much ballyhooed but questionable choice of filming. Instead of the normal 24 frames-per-second, Jackson goes for 48 fps and the result is nothing less than revolutionary. Some will adore the beyond-crystal clear clarity; it makes a Blu-ray look like '80s-era VHS by comparison. Every minute detail is seen as if it were live. The downside is that every minute detail is seen as if it were live.

Flaws in makeup are glaring and the soft-focus finish that made the "LOTR" trilogy so magical and mesmerizing is absent; it's sharp and pristine and antiseptic. This wouldn't be bad if not for what follows -- action scenes that are so frantic with the CGI so overdone that the visuals become a constant blur. The only time the 48 fps format is a positive is during the 10-minute opening title sequence that economically chronicles the overthrow of the dwarf kingdom.

The last hour of the 166-minute non-epic is admittedly better than all that has preceded it inasmuch as it is in constant motion with a lot taking place visually. The same can be said for a bright and expensive fishing lure when underwater. It will keep you occupied in a distracted sort of way but offers next to nothing narrative-wise.

If this first installment is any kind of indicator, Jackson could become the George Lucas of this decade. As Lucas did with his second "Star Wars" trilogy, Jackson is sullying the memory of one of the most beloved franchises of all-time all for the sake of a buck. (New Line/MGM)