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'The Hobbit' gets trilogy off to a slow start, but fans won't care

REVIEW: The subtitle of this first of three "Hobbit" movies is "An Unexpected Journey." It's right there in the title! We know Bilbo Baggins is going on a journey! So why, then, does it take so long to get started?

After a brief explanation of how the film's dwarves lost their home to Smaug the dragon, we're reintroduced to the bucolic Shire and to Bilbo, kinsman of Frodo from "Lord of the Rings."

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is content living his middle-aged hairy-footed Hobbity life, but adventure, in the form of Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) and his band of rowdy dwarves, knocks and won't leave. It's here that the movie turns into a bizarrely drawn-out farce, where the dwarves run roughshod over Bilbo's tidy home, eating everything in sight, having burping contests, and playing Frisbee and hacky-sack with his mother's china. It's "Animal House Goes to Middle Earth!"

The first third of the nearly three-hour movie feels a bit like a children's TV special, thanks not just to the slapsticky dwarves, but to the way in which it's shot. It's the first major movie projected at 48 frames per second, rather than the usual 24. (Not all theaters can show the film that way, so you may not see this version.) It makes the images seem bright and unnervingly fake, a weirdly jarring result that is supposed to suck you into the film, but often just reminds you that you're watching one.

There's no real reason for Bilbo to abandon his safe Shire life to go adventuring, but it's in the script, so he does. And then the film settles into a groove, as the ragged little company meet up with mountain trolls, goblins, demonic wolves and more, with Gandalf and other members of the group, namely, leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), filling in little pieces of the story as we go.

The most compelling of the confrontations comes when Bilbo meets up with Gollum, the creepy big-eyed ring-loving creature fans will remember from "Lord of the Rings." They play an abbreviated version of the book's riddle game, which goes on slightly too long but should satisfy book purists. (The actors could have used some enunciation lessons here though -- one riddle's answer is so slurred that even when it's repeated, it's unintelligible.)

"The Hobbit" is no "Lord of the Rings." It is a simpler, much shorter book meant for children, and there's a sense throughout this first film that this was forgotten, and that director Peter Jackson wanted to stretch it out into a darker, longer tale. There's much too much, for example, of wizard Radagast the Brown, a nature-loving simpleton who's only mentioned once in the book.

But the Tolkien films are not unlike the "Twilight" movies. If this is your world, if these are the books you cherished, here is your long-awaited gift -- your beloved and familiar characters larger than life. If you're not a devotee but want a good adventure -- well, maybe the second and third films will bring more of that. This first offering is decidedly a mixed bag.

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