Welcome back to Middle-earth. It has been nearly a decade since writer-director Peter Jackson last set foot on J.R.R. Tolkien's hallowed ground, signing off on a spectacular trilogy of films adapted from the British author's Lord of the Rings novels. There were box office billions and well-earned Oscars aplenty and then two subsequent Jackson projects — King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009) — that suggested the filmmaker might have been stunted by his own mega-success. (With its distended Depression-era prologue and a running time nearly twice its 1933 predecessor, Kong in particular seemed as thick around the middle as its director now appeared slim.) So it was no real surprise when Jackson announced he would produce two films based on Tolkien's The Hobbit — the single 1937 volume that launched the Middle-earth mythology — and even less surprising when Jackson pulled a Jay Leno on his own hand-picked director, Guillermo del Toro, in order to hold the reins himself. (Del Toro retains a co-screenwriting credit for his contribution.)
Of course, succession is never a tidy business, nor is that of making prequels into beloved franchises. Rest assured, Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey perpetrates no Jar Jar–size transgressions. Rather, it's reverential to a fault, with the director and his regular collaborators Fran Walsh (Jackson's partner) and Philippa Boyens hewing so closely to Tolkien's slender text that, at the end of three hours, we're barely 100 pages in, with mere sentences on the page having been inflated into entire sequences on-screen. The detailed appendix Tolkien included with the final LOTR story, The Return of the King, have also been plundered for inspiration, and the result is a journey whose most unexpected element is just how little ground it covers. (Recently, it was announced that the two planned Hobbit films will now be three, with the next installments set to arrive in 2013 and 2014, respectively.)
Set some 60 years before the events depicted in LOTR, The Hobbit tells of another unassuming Shire-dweller's grand mythopoeic adventure in the company of wizards, elves and — this time around — a merry band of thirteen dwarfs. The hobbit in question is one Bilbo Baggins — uncle of Frodo — played to great effect in the LOTR films by Ian Holm and here, as a younger man, by the likable Martin Freeman (Sherlock's Iraq vet Watson). A fussy, pipe-smoking dandy of minimal ambition and even less curiosity, Bilbo is shaken from his life of leisure by a visit from that wise, wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). And if there is one inviolable constant in this first chapter of The Hobbit, it's McKellen's delectable mixture of world-weariness and coquettish vanity, which might be the default posture of any British acting great resigned to Hollywood's inexhaustible need for sorcerers, mutants and Jedi masters.
Gandalf wants Bilbo to join the dwarfs on their journey to reclaim Erebor, a once-prosperous dwarf kingdom long ago decimated and claimed by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, which now lies in wait, guarding its hordes of gold. But The Hobbit takes nearly an hour just to get out of Bilbo's hobbit hole, with much of that time devoted to a long night of drunken dwarf merriment (including not one but two musical numbers) during which you can just about feel the hair on your feet growing longer. For all their Wagnerian bombast, the LOTR films proceeded at a clip, with lots of story to tell and spirited new characters lurking around every bend. There was exuberance in the filmmaking, too, as if Jackson — who cut his teeth on some of the most outlandish, low-budget splatterfests of the 1980s and '90s — still couldn't quite believe he'd been allowed to make these movies. They were generous entertainments that you didn't have to be a Tolkien convert to enjoy — they made one out of you. The Hobbit, by contrast, feels distinctly like a members-only affair. It's self-conscious monument art, but is the monument to Tolkien or to Jackson himself?
Even once Bilbo and company take to the hobbit highway, the pacing is leisurely verging on lethargic, fitfully enlivened by meetings with colorful beasties: giant, cockney-accented trolls that resemble talking phalli; a goitered goblin king (amusingly voiced by Dame Edna him/herself, Barry Humphries); and stone giants that give new meaning to the expression "mountain men." A few welcome LOTR faces also pop up along the way, including elvish royalty Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the magisterial Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman, not yet corrupted by the forces of darkness. As for the baker's dozen of dwarfs, with the exception of their noble leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), they never register as more than an amorphous, knee-high mass.
It should go without saying that all of this is executed at an exceptional level of craft, with Jackson and the real-life wizards of his Weta Workshop once more bringing Middle-earth to life with rich detailing and seamless integrations of live action and CGI. But in the moment of Avatar, Life of Pi and Harry Potter, such technical mastery is ever more the rule, not the exception. The movie only springs to full life late in the day, during the first meeting of Bilbo and the tragic creature who will come to be known as Gollum (once again played by the sublime Andy Serkis), a hobbit reduced to a quivering, schizophrenic mass by his fidelity to a certain gold ring. Suddenly, in one long scene consisting of nothing more than two characters trying to outwit each other in a game of riddles, Jackson the storyteller seems to overtake Jackson the technocrat. The old magic returns, and for a fleeting moment, The Hobbit feels truly necessary, a triumph of art over commerce.