Plenty of digital wizardry but not enough substance
There is a moment early in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Gandalf The Grey turns to diminutive hero Bilbo Baggins and says: "All good stories deserve embellishment."
Director Peter Jackson must have taken the wise wizard's words to heart and embellished JRR Tolkien's novel to the point of creative obesity.
Visually stunning flashbacks, which fail to advance the plot, are roughly hewn into a sprawling narrative that doesn't kick into second gear for a good 45 minutes.
The decision to shoot the film in 3D at the higher rate of 48 frames per second compared with the usual 24 frames will divide audiences.
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Everything looks cleaner and crisper – you can see the stitching on Gandalf's hat and prosthetics in minute detail – but this might be too much heightened reality for a sweeping fantasy that romanticises the bonds of trust between gung-ho brothers.
In the first deviation from the text, Jackson opens his picture at Bag End with the elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) penning a book to his cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood).
We rewind 60 years to meet young Bilbo (Freeman) in the Shire as he encounters Gandalf and a 13-strong company of dwarves, who intend to reclaim their lost gold from the dragon Smaug in his mountain lair.
After a sleepless night, Bilbo agrees to accompany dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his troops on their perilous mission.
"Axe or sword – what is your weapon of choice?" Thorin asks Bilbo.
"Well, I do have some skills with conkers," replies the hobbit.
The writer-director employs the same visual lexicon: sweeping aerial shots of characters traipsing over New Zealand landscapes, close-ups of ethereal figures in deep contemplation.
But an hour of substance is bloated to 166 minutes of digital trickery and breathless action sequences including a protracted chase through the subterranean lair of the goblins.
When Bilbo subsequently remarks, "I do believe the worst is behind us," we know he must be joking, else the next two chapters, Desolation Of Smaug and There And Back Again, released in 2013 and 2014 respectively will be very dull affairs.