"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is not the worst film of the year, but it may be the most disappointing. Given the scope and grandeur of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" epics, we enter the theater justifiably expecting his new Tolkien adventure to thrill our socks off. Instead, it's a husk with the superficial features of a "Rings" movie but none of the energy and heart and wit -- an unexpected journey, indeed.
Just as "The Return of the King" took f-o-r-e-v-e-r to depart its myriad characters and conclude, "The Hobbit" doesn't shift out of low gear until the last of its three hours. The story, a pastiche assembled from Tolkien's novel plus scraps and oddments, unfolds 60 years before Frodo's quest.
The Baggins in focus here is young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a milquetoast stay-at-home impelled into a dangerous quest when Gandalf (Ian McKellen) misrepresents him to a troop of warrior dwarves as a burglar in need of work. The pint-sized platoon needs a thief to win back their kingdom, now occupied by the fearsome dragon Smaug.
Before the adventure can begin, however, Jackson feels we need a slow, labored reintroduction to Middle-earth. He lingers over stale shots of the Shire, Bag End and Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) taking up his quill to write the memoir whose events the film shows us. Elf royalty (Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving) are reintroduced. Saruman (Christopher Lee) offers a long expository conversation to explain the plot to us. When the payoff finally arrives, trolls and orcs and goblins are killed, but mostly the film kills your time.
Aside from pacing, the main problem is that "The Hobbit's" characters lack the crispness that makes for inspiring adventure. Freeman's finger-fidgeting Bilbo is a fussbudget creature, frustrated, prissy and befuddled. His personality takes a darker, more determined hue when he encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis, digitally transformed) and slips on the Ring of power. His dwarf commandos are characterized mostly by their facial hair, which is sculpted like topiary. The most memorable character is the Great Goblin (nicely voiced by Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna).
Jackson, with his writing partners Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (who at one point was slated to direct, alas for what might have been) struggle to find a tone balancing the light, child-friendly character of "The Hobbit" and the yowling berserker chase-and-stab of the "Rings" dramas.
The proper look for the film also eludes them. The 3-D film will be presented in select theaters at a 48-frames-per-second rate, an innovation that renders images as unnaturally crisp and clear. Instead of the romantic illusion of film, we see the sets and makeup for what they are. Let's hope that the next two chapters in this trilogy use the gimmick to better effect.
The welcome finale boasts a line of dialogue that shall forever be enshrined in the Unintentional Irony Hall of Fame. Their trials done for the moment, Bilbo chirps, "I do believe the worst is behind us." Here's hoping.