Critics are right fans wrong1/10
First came the original trilogy, a popular success and critically acclaimed. Then, some years later, a second trilogy began, a prequel to the original, and the first installment of this second trilogy turned out to be awful. We saw this pattern play out once, with "Star Wars," and now, alas, it begins again, with "The Hobbit," a movie that is exactly one Jar Jar Binks away from being as bad as "The Phantom Menace." The problem may be built into the design. The previous "Lord of the Rings" films were each based on a single book. "The Hobbit" - more like a children's novel than the other three, a kind of "Tom Sawyer" to their "Huckleberry Finn" - is just one book, smaller than any of the other J.R.R. Tolkien books, and yet it is being blown out into three enormous films. This first installment runs 169 minutes.
This puts a lot of pressure on a simple story, especially when you consider that director Peter Jackson and his screenwriters really can't take liberties with the tale, not without incurring the wrath of millions. They must work with what they have, and what they have is quite enough for one pleasing and inventive two-hour movie - or a nine-hour disaster stretched over three years.
This pressure, this obligation to stretch everything to the limits of endurance and beyond, is felt from the film's early minutes. Howard Shore's beautiful theme music, from the previous trilogy, filters in. We see the idyllic Middle-earth countryside and are introduced to Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins - Freeman was born to be a hobbit; he is ideal casting - and we settle in for a magical experience. And then, slowly, a fatal distance opens up between what we're hoping and what we're actually seeing.
Bilbo is a happy hobbit, a homebody who enjoys his creature comforts and doesn't have a violent impulse about him. Yet he is recruited by Gandalf the Grey Wizard (Ian McKellen) to join an expedition by dwarfs to retake their homeland from a dragon. See how quickly it takes to say that? Bilbo is recruited. Period. Yet the movie takes this tiny bit of crucial plot movement and dilutes its effectiveness: The dwarfs show up for an impromptu party at Bilbo's house. Bilbo frets about what the dwarfs will do to his house. Then the dwarfs clean up. Then Bilbo says he won't join their fight. But then he does. The film milks every detail of the text, every hint of vacillation in the main character, to turn water flowing downstream into molasses walking uphill.
It must be said that if you plan to enjoy "The Hobbit," it really helps to love dwarfs. Others may prefer hobbits - they're adorably idiosyncratic, small, chubby, eat all day, have big ears, and they're incredibly sincere. Still others may prefer the Olympian elves - beautiful, pristine, sure and eternal. But there is only one hobbit in the entire movie, and only one brief sequence involving elves. Otherwise you're stuck with the dwarfs, who are like Vikings - boorish, slovenly, hearty and heavy-drinking - and not exactly lovable.
The three "Lord of the Rings" were heavy on battle scenes, but "The Hobbit" is almost nothing but battles. Without a stopwatch, it would be hard to know for sure, but probably 50 percent of screen time is taken up with fighting - perhaps up to 80 percent if you count planning for and recovering from battles. Some of these battles have pockets of interest: A conflict with goblins plays out like a trapeze act, in three dimensions, with the combatants falling through space, landing and regrouping. But most of "The Hobbit" is like looking over Peter Jackson's shoulder to watch a computer screen.
Occasionally, when the smoke clears, we get a glimpse of what "The Hobbit" might have been, had Freeman's quirkiness and humanity been given a chance to set the tone. The movie really springs to life only when Freeman dominates, as when Bilbo falls into a cave and discovers Gollum, looking like James Carville but acting like Peter Lorre. It's an encounter worthy of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy - so is the all-too-brief scene between Gandalf and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).
If you loved the earlier films, these are moments you will hold on to, but they're very few, and they're not enough.