The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Credit: James Fisher/Warner Bros Pictures and MGM

Us Rating: ***

Elves. Goblins. Wizards. It's good to see Middle-earth's all-stars again. yet this prequel lacks the Lord of the Rings luster.

The film centers on unassuming hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who's at home when 13 dwarves first barge in for supper -- a slapstick sequence that feels never-ending as the motley crew sings not one but two songs. Then there are the distracting visuals: Shot at 48 frames per second (instead of the usual 24), the 3-D flick seems more like high-definition TV and captures reality so well, many sets look fake!

On the plus side, the action dazzles, as when Bilbo's gang walks a cliff, only to have the mountain itself come to life.

And thank goodness for Gollum. The deliciously dark creature (performed again by Andy Serkis) lights up the best scene. Still, with all the padding elsewhere, the saga clocks in at nearly three hours. Let's hope director Peter Jackson finds a better editor for the trilogy's follow-ups.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- which also stars Sir Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Cate Blanchett --  is in theaters now.