Old hobbits die hard in Peter Jackson's return to Middle-Earth

Can The Hobbit's simple charms survive the expansion to epic film trilogy?

When Peter Jackson marshaled an army of New Zealanders and global movie stars to bring The Lord of the Rings trilogy to life, he didn't treat the material as the typical escapist fantasy fare of the Harry Potter era. The sprawling, Oscar-winning films feature wizards, elves, and cave trolls, but convey the sweep and texture of a historical epic, thanks to Jackson and company's obsessive re-creation of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved source material.

The Lord of the Rings' massive success made a cinematic adaptation of its predecessor, The Hobbit, inevitable, while putting undue expectations on the smaller, simpler novel. Jackson will take three films to tell The Hobbit's story. The filmmaker is drawing on Tolkien's voluminous appendices to expand the more modest, family-friendly story into a darker, more direct Rings prequel.

At nearly three hours, the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, provides a return visit to Middle-Earth that's at once spectacular and unsatisfying. Some scenes prove thoroughly ill-conceived, while others genuinely transport viewers to a mystical realm.

Despite a prologue dense with exposition, a simple tale lies at the film's heart. Wandering wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) capriciously recruits humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, "Sherlock's" Dr. Watson) to serve as a burglar for a band of 13 boisterous dwarves. Led by brooding Thorin Oakenshield (a charismatic Richard Armitage), the dwarves seek to reclaim the mountainous seat of their shattered kingdom, overthrown decades earlier by an avaricious dragon.

Freeman charmingly plays Bilbo as a gentleman farmer-turned-reluctant adventurer who surprises himself with his resolve to meet Gandalf's challenge. The fish-out-of-water premise calls for more comedy than Rings, which isn't the filmmaker's strongest suit. James Nesbitt does offer a wry turn as the dwarf Bofur, known for his floppy earflaps, who teases Bilbo about the threats on the road. But scenes with backwoods wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) contain so many anthropomorphic animals and so much strained, eye-crossing slapstick, it's as if we've fallen through a rabbit hole into one of the Narnia films.

Without Rings' themes of impending war and human corruptibility, The Hobbit sets lower stakes. Or does it? As Team Thorin journeys over hill and dale, the film dramatizes subplots involving the rise of a ghostly "necromancer" that took place off-stage in the book. Not only does an ancient evil invade Middle-Earth's idyllic corners, but the darker, more complicated content feels imposed on The Hobbit's more straightforward plot. Perhaps these disparate elements will integrate more comfortably in the subsequent films.

Andy Serkis gives another live-wire motion-capture performance as the deranged Gollum. His "riddles in the dark" confrontation more than lives up to the standards of the first three films, with both tension and laughs that feel organic to the situation. The film's last third takes some missteps, including a grotesque, massively dewlapped goblin king played as a joke, but delivers enough exciting set pieces to shift the film into high gear.

On a technical note, some theaters will exhibit The Hobbit in a new format called "high frame rate 3-D," which presents the film image at 48 frames per second, rather than the industry standard 24. If you're a big fan of 3-D, you'll like the way the format provides an image with greater brightness, clarity, and depth of the three-dimensional field. It can also make big special-effects moments look like the cut scenes of video games, and occasionally the action looks weirdly sped up. It's a distracting work in progress, but it's worth remembering that the first color feature films probably looked like distracting works in progress to audiences only used to black and white.

Between technological experimentation and liberties with source material, The Hobbit is guaranteed to outrage some highly obsessive consumers of pop culture. Prepare for some disproportionately heated online debate. The film's leisurely pace provides a more immediate problem. An Unexpected Journey feels like watching the extended edition of a film that would have more dramatic momentum with a leaner edit.

Ultimately, Jackson relies heavily on viewer affection for the previous trilogy, loading the action with cameos of the "Well, look who it is!" variety. It's nice to see the old gang again, but the film feels visually derivative as well. A chase involving hostile orcs riding massive wolves over a ridge seems calculated to evoke our memories of a similar set piece in The Two Towers. But where nearly every frame of The Lord of the Rings felt suffused with the thrill of discovery, The Hobbit feels defined more by nostalgia than awe. The earlier trilogy blazed new trails in epic filmmaking, but The Hobbit, while perfectly enjoyable on its own terms, finds Jackson retracing his steps.