'Hobbit' Offers Glimpses of Enchanting Tolkien Magic

*** (out of four)

How well I remember reading “The Hobbit” in eighth grade -- and falling under the spell of that magical world created by a middle-aged genius with the heart and soul of a 10-year-old boy.

The new film version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel is pretty good; but it offers only glimpses of that enchanting Tolkien magic.

Mining background from Tolkien’s later “Lord of the Rings” and its appendices, Peter Jackson and crew have broadened the saga to such a degree that three full films will be necessary to complete it.

And the first is nearly three hours long.

That time passes surprisingly fast, though many scenes aren't in the original novel.

I’m not an expert on Tolkien’s vast, complex creation; but as far as I can tell -- with the exception of a few tedious action scenes -- much of the added material does seem to be Tolkien’s, tying this tale securely to its successors and creating enough backstory to sustain three long films.

Whether all this does justice to Tolkien’s charming little pre-trilogy gem is another question.

For non-fantasy fans, I should explain that the plot involves a small, man-like hobbit named Bilbo (played by “Sherlock’s” Martin Freeman) who joins 13 dwarves on a series of adventures with the goal of reclaiming their far-off homeland.

Tolkien buffs might hate me for this -- but I actually prefer “The Hobbit” to the later trilogy; it’s more charming, less grandiose and often quite funny.

Jackson’s film ably captures the book’s beguiling humor, but all that unassuming, elegant simplicity is lost -- replaced by complex plotting, excessive visuals and long, dense, dirty battles that seem more at home in “Braveheart” than Middle Earth.

When someone has huge success with a film -- as Jackson did with his Oscar-hogging trilogy -- the result is often overkill on subsequent projects; that’s what damaged the two “Matrix” sequels, and it comes close to scuttling “The Hobbit” as well.

So often, it felt to me like the movie was simply trying too hard, and they really really wanted us to notice -- especially with the special-effects, where the overwrought sets, backdrops and cinematography often distract from character and storyline.

Oddly, one of the most Tolkienesque moments is the Dwarves intoning “Song of the Misty Mountains,” which is gorgeous and haunting.

Then later, when Bilbo meets the mentally and physically misshapen Gollum, the film sails grandly into Tolkien territory, capturing the surreal humor and terror of that underground encounter.

And it develops touching heroism as Bilbo gradually rises above the dwarves’ doubts about his fitness for the quest.

All this is helped by strong acting, particularly from Freeman and Ian McKellen, who fully humanize their larger-than-life characters.

The ironic thing is that all the finest moments key largely on character, dialog and acting, making one wonder whether it was necessary to spend $250 million on bringing Tolkien to the screen.

Less money and more magic might have served the author better.

The film is rated PG-13 for action violence.

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