“There and Back Again” was the alternative title for J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, but the first film in Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation feels like it gets nowhere at all. The Lord of the Rings made sense as a trilogy; the source material was three books, each densely packed with characters, battles and lore. The Hobbit is a 300-page children’s book, and the nearly three-hour Unexpected Journey covers only about its first hundred pages. That leaves plenty of time for long conversations spent poring over maps, arduous slogs over mountain trails and battles with moronic trolls, boulder-heaving stone giants and a swarm of goblins led by a scrotum-chinned king voiced by Dame Edna himself, Barry Humphries.
The set pieces are thrillingly staged and the scenery gorgeous, as is to be expected, but the getting there feels endless and riddled with tangents. Worst of all, the 48-frames-per-second format robs Middle-earth of its magic; for all its supposed technological innovation, the over-bright, unforgivingly clear picture most resembles BBC television productions from the 1980s. The you-are-there clarity is a constant reminder that these are actors romping around New Zealand in costumes wielding prop weapons.
There are moments that hearken back to the best of the original trilogy: The mischievous gleam in the eye of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf makes a welcome return, Martin Freeman combines befuddlement and surprising reserves of courage as Bilbo Baggins, and Andy Serkis’ Gollum introduces a tension that is otherwise absent. But for the most part it all feels like prologue; the book’s central issue, the vanquishing of the dragon Smaug, is merely hinted at, and even this installment’s proxy villain remains glowering and scheming at the end. As what little story there is unfolds, it’s hard to believe that when the trilogy finally plays out, this entire film won’t seem largely unnecessary.