Special effects are supposed to enhance a film, not overwhelm it. Yet that's what happens in Peter Jackson's
first "Lord of the Rings" prequel, adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved Middle-earth fantasy.
Long before his nephew Frodo was born, reluctant Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is persuaded by the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to leave his comfortably cozy Hobbit home in the Shire to join 13 Dwarves who are determined to reclaim Erebor, their ancestral mountain home that was appropriated by the Dragon Smaug. After pillaging Baggins' pantry, the rowdy Dwarves, led by the brave warrior, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), embark on a treacherous quest on which they encounter savage Orcs, Goblins, Trolls and Wargs, as well as a mysterious figure known as the Necromancer. Along the way, humble Bilbo exchanges riddles with the Gollum (embodied by Andy Serkis) and acquires that fabled, "precious" gold ring.
Scripted by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with Guillermo del Toro, the expository mythology meanders in many directions. Rather than envelop the audience in Baggins' adventures, Peter Jackson, instead, concentrates on visual acuity by introducing a state-of-the-art digital camera that shoots in 3D at 48 frames-per-second -- a.k.a. High Frame Rate technology, or HFR -- twice as fast the traditional 24 frames-per-second.
What does this new technology accomplish? Greater clarity, which is good and bad. It looks amazing, so astounding, in fact, that bizarre visuals dominate almost every scene. Problem is, they're distractingly artificial and flat, particularly in the forest with the Wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and in Rivendell with Elves Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving).
Peter Jackson filmed this and two subsequent installments back-to-back in New Zealand, creating a new epic trilogy. Hopefully, the next two episodes will be less tedious and more engrossing.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a grandiose, visually spectacular 7. In some theaters, audiences will be given the choice of HFR 3D, 3D or the standard 2D format. Save the extra charge; you'll enjoy the low-tech film more.