Some of the tricks are truly daz­zling

Hob­bit

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - D CONTRIBUTED by WARNER bros. Rat­ing: PG-13 for vi­o­lence, fright­en­ing im­ages. Run­ning time: 2 hours, 49 min­utes. The­aters: Alamo Lake Creek, Alamo Slaugh­ter, Alamo South,alamo Ritz,alamo Vil­lage, Barton Creek, Cine­mark Cedar Park, Cine­mark Gal­le­ria, Cinem

sum­mer 2014. Part one’s em­bel­lish­ments may pay off nicely, but right now, “An Un­ex­pected Jour­ney” looks like the start of an un­nec­es­sary tril­ogy bet­ter told in one film.

Split into three books, “The Lord of the Rings” was a nat­u­ral film tril­ogy, run­ning nearly half a mil­lion words, five times as long as “The Hob­bit.”

Jack­son and his wife, Fran Walsh, along with screen­writ­ing part­ners Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro have metic­u­lously mined Tolkien ref­er­ences to events that never played out in any of the books (stuff the film­mak­ers call the “in­be­tween bits”).

With that added ma­te­rial, they’re build­ing a much big­ger epic than Tolkien’s book, the un­ex­pected jour­ney of home­body Bilbo (Martin Free­man, with Ian Holm repris­ing his “Lord of the Rings” role as older Bilbo).

Bilbo has no de­sire to hit the road af­ter wizard Gan­dalf (Ian McKellen, grandly repris­ing his own “Rings” role) and a com­pany of dwarves turn up to en­list him on a quest to re­take a dwarf moun­tain king­dom from the dragon that dec­i­mated it.

Yet off he goes, en­coun­ter­ing trolls, gob­lins, sav­age orcs and a grisly guy named Gol­lum (Andy Serkis, re-cre­at­ing the char­ac­ter that pi­o­neered mo­tion-cap­ture per­for­mance in “Rings”).

Im­proved by a decade of vis­ual-ef­fects ad­vances, Gol­lum so­lid­i­fies his stand­ing as one of the creepi­est movie crea­tures ever. And as bigscreen pro­logue mo­ments go, Bilbo’s ac­qui­si­tion of Gol­lum’s pre­cious ring of power may be sec­ond only to Darth Vader’s first hissy breath at the end of Ge­orge Lu­cas’ “Star Wars” pre­quels.

“Un­ex­pected Jour­ney” res­ur­rects other “Rings” fa­vorites, some who didn’t ap­pear in “The Hob­bit” (Eli­jah Wood as Frodo Bag­gins, Cate Blanchett as elf queen Gal­adriel, Christo­pher Lee as wizard Saru­man) and some who did (Hugo Weav­ing as elf lord El­rond).

Richard Ar­mitage de­buts as dwarf leader Thorin Oak­en­shield, en­no­bled from a fairly com­i­cal fig­ure in Tolkien’s text to a brood­ing war­rior king in the mold of Viggo Mortensen from the “Rings” tril­ogy.

The film­mak­ers also pluck orc bruiser Azog out of Tolkien’s foot­notes and make him Thorin’s sworn en­emy. Azog’s a bland an­tag­o­nist, adding lit­tle more than oned­i­men­sional blus­ter.

While there are plenty of orc skew­er­ings and goblin be­head­ings, the ac­tion is lighter and more car­toon­ish than that of “The Lord of the Rings.” Still, much of it is silly fun, par­tic­u­larly a bat­tle along a maze of foot­bridges sus­pended through­out a goblin cave.

The po­ten­tial sea change with “The Hob­bit” is Jack­son’s 48-frame rate. Most the­aters are not yet equipped for that speed, so the film largely will play at the stan­dard 24 frames a sec­ond.

Pro­po­nents, in­clud­ing James Cameron, say higher frame rates pro­vide more life­like im­ages, sharpen 3-D ef­fects, and lessen or elim­i­nate a flick­er­ing ef­fect known as “strob­ing” that comes with cam­era mo­tion.

I saw the movie first at 24 frames a sec­ond and then at 48, and they’re ab­so­lutely right that higher speeds clar­ify the pic­ture. Strob­ing no­tice­able at 24 frames is gone at 48, pro­vid­ing a con­ti­nu­ity that greatly im­proves the ac­tion se­quences.

The panora­mas are like Mid­dle-earth truly come to life, as though you’re stand­ing on a hill look­ing down at the hob­bits’ Shire. If Cameron’s “Avatar” was like look­ing through a win­dow at a fan­tas­ti­cal land­scape, “Un­ex­pected Jour­ney” at 48 frames is like re­mov­ing the glass so you can step on through.

But with great clar­ity comes greater vi­sion. At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, some­times feel­ing so in­ti­mate it’s like watch­ing live the­ater. That close-up per­spec­tive also brings out the fak­ery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trap­pings at times, the crys­tal pic­tures bleach­ing away the painterly qual­ity of tra­di­tional film.

Tech­nol­ogy may im­prove the story’s trans­la­tion to the screen, but there’s just not that much story to Tolkien’s “Hob­bit.” Jack­son is stretch­ing a breezy 300 pages to the length of a Dick­ens minis­eries, and those in-be­tween bits really stick out in part one.

“I do be­lieve the worst is be­hind us,” Bilbo re­marks as “An Un­ex­pected Jour­ney” ends.

From a hob­bit’s lips to a film­maker’s ears. Let’s hope Jack­son has the goods to im­prove on a so-so start. Oth­er­wise, “The Hob­bit” — subti­tled “There and Back Again” by Tolkien — is go­ing to feel like trav­el­ing the same road more than twice.

From left, Dean O’Gor­man as Fili, Ai­dan Turner as Kili, Mark Had­low as Dori, Jed Bro­phy as Nori and Wil­liam Kircher as Bi­fur in a scene from the fan­tasy ad­ven­ture “The Hob­bit: An Un­ex­pected Jour­ney.”

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