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Updated Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 09:48 AM

‘The Hobbit’: overstuffed but jaw-dropping

By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book critic

Long ago and far away, a languages professor at Oxford took a break between grading papers and wrote down this sentence: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” From this random jotting came a children’s adventure tale about a short fellow with hairy feet who is dragooned, much against his will, into a grand adventure.

The rest is literary and cinematic history. In 1937 came J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” then in the 1950s, his masterpiece, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Then New Zealand film director Peter Jackson made three movies from the trilogy, creating a dark and luminous tale of a titanic struggle between good and evil, set in an imaginary land called Middle-earth.

Now Jackson is back with his interpretation of “The Hobbit” — he’s divvying up the book into three movies. “LOTR”overflowed with storytelling gold, mined from three separate books. “The Hobbit” is a kids story.

Can this possibly work?

Here’s the report: Though at two hours, 50 minutes it feels overstuffed, the first “Hobbit” film holds its own thanks to inspired acting and some jaw-dropping technical innovations.

After a clunky explanatory sequence (this story happened before Lord of the Rings! Bilbo was older then!!), the wizard Gandalf (a welcome return by the majestic Ian McKellen) arrives at a younger Bilbo’s home.

Martin Freeman, the British actor, plays Bilbo. He was born for it.

Freeman most recently played Dr. John Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s 21st- century Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series “Sherlock” (Cumberbatch plays villains in “The Hobbit”). There Freeman perfected his face’s ability to suggest confusion, fear, shock and perplexity, tamped down with English stiff-upper-lip reserve. It’s great fun to watch Bilbo’s composure erode as 13 fierce dwarves (piercings, dreadlocks, Scottish/Irish accents) invade his tidy home. The screen lights up with humor, merry making, stirring songs and some lightning-fast choreography.

But then it’s off to the adventure, as Bilbo, the dwarves and Gandalf go off to reclaim the dwarves’ stolen treasure and lost homeland. And here is where the technical magic truly begins. Shot at 48 frames per second (24 is standard), the color and high resolution of the visuals are thrilling, all enhanced by 3D. The film is shown in multiple formats at various theaters; look for one offering 48 frames per second and 3D — you will duck to avoid the blood and mud spatter from the battles.

Yes, many, many battles, past and present. The better part of “The Hobbit” is almost nonstop, relentless action. After the band-of-mythic-brothers’ umpteenth battle with (and escape from) the horrifying orcs and goblins, I wondered — as long as Jackson is stretching out this tale, how about more humor? Sparkling dialogue? Dare I suggest — character development?

Let us hope that in the next two movies Jackson will fold in more of Tolkien’s playfulness, his humor and his feel for the dark-light themes in English myth and magic. A World War I veteran who survived the horrific battle of the Somme, Tolkien valued imaginary worlds, a sense of whimsy and a peaceful pipe before the fire. Will his children’s tale survive the freight of expectations? Stay tuned.

Mary Ann Gwinn: mgwinn@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2357.

Movie Review 3 stars

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” with Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Peter Jackson, from a screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. 170 minutes. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images. Several theaters.



Gollum (performed by Andy Serkis) is back in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.




James Fisher / Warner Bros.
Thirteen dwarves invade the home of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, right) in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”




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