The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is part one of Peter Jackson's prelude to The Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien's modest book has been split into three movies, the last of which will premier in 2014. It's impossible to gauge at this point how well the trilogy will shape up, but this first installment is about as satisfying as a cross-country road trip that abruptly ends at the Conoco station five blocks down the road.
The key to enjoying it is not getting your hopes up too high (and skipping the 3-D).
You know the story: A young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) joins the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin Oakenshield, king of the dwarves, and his 12 followers on a quest to retake Lonely Mountain from the slumbering dragon Smaug. Along the way, the party battles trolls, orcs, and goblins, eats kale with some elves, and is relentlessly hunted by Azog, the unimpressive Avatar-on-'roids-looking orc with a fork for an arm.
Sure, stretching one modest Tolkien book into three loooong films has its advantages: Gollum's introduction to the series becomes a triumph of creepiness and comedy, and Bilbo's courage and ingenuity is given time to develop within the cartoonish battle scenes that take place every half hour or so.
But the movie's flaws are plenty distracting. Gratuitous flashbacks and backstory kill the story's tension and narrative arc, and the film's sets are routinely outed as fakery by Jackson's high-speed filming technique. All three Hobbit films were shot in 3-D high-speed projection (48 frames per second instead of the standard 24). While this will eventually become the industry standard, right now it amounts to a lot of obvious movie sets, freakishly crisp backdrops, and long smoldering stares—all hallmark traits of campy Mexican soap operas.
"I do believe the worst is behind us," Bilbo remarks as An Unexpected Journey comes to an end. I certainly hope he's right.