The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a special-effects fest

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Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, and Richard Armitage. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, December 14, at the Park Theatre

Thanks to Peter Jackson’s fetishistic attention to detail, fans of his Lord of the Rings film trilogy will be happier than a homebound hobbit at his latest creation. The goblins, trolls, and orcs are rendered to the finest wrinkle and hair, the chase scenes over mountains and down into labyrinthian caves are thrilling, and there’s even a dwarf who manages to smoulder. As for the unexpected choice for reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman has a wry awkwardness that brings ample humanity to the special-effects fest.

Just be warned: it takes an awfully long time to get this party started. The opening hour is largely devoted to the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves invading Bilbo’s underground abode. Led by their broody, vertically challenged leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), they try to convince the homebody to join them in a quest to reclaim the dwarves’ lost kingdom at Lonely Mountain. Yes, you can feel Jackson streeeetching J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 book into three parts; by the end, Lonely Mountain is still a far-off spot in the distance.

The hype about Jackson’s sped-up, 48-frames-per-second digital cinematography causing dizziness is overblown. A bigger problem is that a few of the 3-D scenes, like the opening battle of the Lonely Mountain kingdom, have an oddly artificial look that falls somewhere between pop-up book, HDTV, and Xbox. The technology is redeemed, though, in other, darker action sequences, the most dazzling being a cliffside battle that features the hobbit and dwarves swinging precariously from cliff treetops and a spectacular fall into subterranean goblin canyons.

Farther down the caverns awaits Gollum, and he does not disappoint: Andy Serkis has managed to make his Peter Lorre–like outcast even more menacing here, wild and reptilian and ready to pounce at the smallest insult.

Like the Rings trilogy, decapitations, bodily fluids, and other gross goodies abound, despite The Hobbit’s origins as junior fiction. Really, where else this holiday season can you watch a trio of gigantic trolls trying to roast dwarves over an open spit for dinner? Or hear a goblin growl the line: “Bring out the bone breaker. Start with the youngest!”

Watch the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
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