RATING |

AT THE RISK OF attracting trolls, I'd say the accomplishments of "The Lord of the Rings" easily dwarf those of "The Hobbit."

Which is not to say the movie is not goblin up favorable reviews. Beware, though, all those outside the fellowship of J.R.R. Tolkien fanaticism. This new movie, unlike the engaging and universally inviting "Lord of the Ring" series, is mostly for insiders (a population limited in size to only a billion or so people).

The movie will play better for devotees than casual fans.

It's pretty much either/orc.

"The Hobbit" is phase one of director Peter Jackson's plan to take Tolkien's modest The Hobbit book and turn it into a nine-hour, three-movie extravaganza.

There are early signs of aggrandizement - let's start with the title, which is expanded to "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

Unexpected?

"Rings" made $5 billion. If you did not expect Hollywood to make something out of Tolkein's prequel, you are ingesting more mushrooms than Radagast The Brown.

Who is Radagast The Brown? If you don't know, you'll probably need the 20-minute debriefing that Jackson gives you at the outset of "The Hobbit" - a primer on dwarf/orc/elf history that also (if you chose this format) serves to show off Jackson's new technology. It's a 48 frames-per-second (double the usual speed) technology that allows him to incorporate more movement into his 3-D, computer-generated sequences. So you get 20 minutes of eyeball-aching action, during which the camera point of view and characters move with acrobatic intensity.

The takeaway: Dwarfs don't like orcs, elves, goblins or dragons, and 48 fps 3-D CGI hurts your eyes. I did eventually adjust (as the movement quieted down), but I was constantly distracted by the super-clarity of the images, and the weirdly flat video quality.

Maybe that contributed to the general feeling of detachment, although the leisurely pace doesn't help. After the prologue, Jackson cuts to the Shire, where we meet Bilbo 1.0 (Martin Freeman), cajoled by Gandalf (Ian McKellen again) and a brigade of warrior dwarves to join their quest to regain dispossessed lands, under the leadership of dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage).

In this sequence, the movie shows its weakness for indulgence - we know Bilbo is bound to go, but Jackson dithers 20 minutes in Bilbo's house for feasting and singing. There are not one but two musical numbers, including a lengthy faux-Celtic dirge during which the dwarves smoke pipes and stare pensively into space.

Then (at last) it's on with the quest - Bilbo and his band of dwarves hit Rivendell, and make for the lonely mountain, and get in a big orc-goblin fight.

Nearly three hours, and the story has progressed only slightly. Nothing is short and sweet here, not even the identities. It's always Thorin, son of Theraflu, son of Thong, etc.

And you're in the cold if you do not share the Tolkien geek's fixation with antique cutlery - the swords here have longer backstories than the characters.

In "Rings," Jackson and company endeavored to treat fantasy as history, and succeeded. Middle Earth felt like a lost chapter in medieval European history - with the emotions of human struggle in play.

"The Hobbit" treats fantasy as fantasy, and its supernatural factions are less readable as human proxies.

It's a less welcoming place for the unconverted. So if you're in the latter camp, and find yourself bored, you have no one to blame but your elf.

Blog: philly.com/KeepItReel