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Some things were meant to be shorter, like Hobbits, and The Hobbit. Whether from love of the subject, or the studio's desire for another multi-billion dollar franchise, Peter Jackson has endeavored to inflate J.R.R. Tolkien's children's novel into three two-and-a half-hour-plus epic films.

>> READ: "The Hobbit: Ringing it dry?" by Peter Keough <<

By including Tolkien material not incorporated into his other texts, and extrapolating bits into mini-epics of their own (see sidebar), Jackson has achieved with this first installment an entertaining 85-minute fantasy. Unfortunately, there are 85 minutes more to go. Then it seems that the tale doesn't grow so much with the telling, as with the selling.

That's not how it looks at first. It begins with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) reading in voiceover his memoirs, in which he describes the Middle Earth-shaking events that set up his own adventure. These episodes from days of yore equal in spectacle similar scenes in the previous trilogy (this time enhanced by 3D).

But then Jackson tries to recreate Tolkien's version of slapstick, a mode best avoided by both. Seven dwarves are barely manageable, but 13 are way too many. They show up singly and in groups (one after the other and with repetitious pratfalls) unexpectedly at the Hobbit hole of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman is a pleasure). They lay waste to their fussy host's larder, stuffing themselves, guzzling ale, singing tedious songs, throwing food, yammering, and belching. They overstay their welcome, both Bilbo's and the viewer's. Then they offer Bilbo a contract to be their "burglar" in their quest to retrieve the stolen Dwarf gold hoarded by the dragon Smaug in the lost Dwarf kingdom of Erebor deep beneath the Lonely Mountain. . . .

Yes, the jargon gets a bit much. But the character arcs of Bilbo, from stuffy stay-at-home to plucky adventurer, and, surprisingly, that of Gandalf (the superb Ian McKellen), from doubt to determination, keep it grounded. Plus some of the action sequences will amaze even the jaded, like one in an underground goblin city that combines Jackie Chan with The Temple of Doom.

But by the third time someone hangs by his fingertips over a gaping void, or Gandalf shouts "Run!" so they can flee the latest CGI monstrosity, the Lonely Mountain seems far away indeed. The road to franchise gold marches ever onward.

>>PKEOUGH@PHX.COM

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