There are some truly wondrous things to behold in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," director Peter Jackson's return to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.

The scenery, whether real or CGI, is as stunning as it was in Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. All the dwarfs, trolls, elves, Orcs, goblins and Hobbits are still marvelous bits of movie magic. The battle scenes (and there are lot of them in "The Hobbit") are gripping set pieces.

It's clear from the beginning that Jackson has lost none of his visual flair or his abilities with special effects over the years between the final installment of "Rings" and this new excursion into the land of Tolkien's imagination. What has gone MIA: Jackson's grip on how to tell a story.

The underlying problem with "The Hobbit" is how Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro chose to handle the source material. "The Lord of the Rings" was a dense, 1,359-page, three-book epic that dealt with a grim battle to save a whole world. "The Hobbit" is a beloved, 287-page children's novel with a generally lighthearted tone and a simple story line about a young Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who joins some dwarfs in a quest to free their homeland from the dragon Smaug.

But Jackson and company have seen fit to expand what could have been a fine two-hour movie into three films, the first of which clocks in at a hefty 2 hours and 49 minutes (not counting the nearly 20 minutes of end credits).


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To beef up the slight tale, they have taken moments encapsuled in one sentence and turned them into full scenes, too many of which feel like outtakes from a DVD set. They have taken characters that are mere footnotes in Tolkien's text -- Azog, a particularly brutish Orc, and Radagast the Brown, a nature-loving wizard -- and turned them into major figures. And they have dropped in major characters from the "Rings" movies: Frodo Baggins, the elf queen Galadriel, the elf Lord Elrond and the wizard Saruman.

Perhaps more importantly, the filmmakers have changed the movie's tone, with much of the lighter material overwhelmed by the battle and chase scenes, making it more like "Lord of the Rings." Even a major "Hobbit" character -- Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf leader -- has been changed from a pompous, comical figure into a warrior king a la Viggo Mortensen's Aragon in "Rings."

The result is serious story bloat and a rather ponderous beginning to the "Hobbit" trilogy.

That does not mean the film is without its virtues and engaging moments. Middle Earth truly does come to life throughout the film, whether it is the beautiful and peaceful land of the elves or the ravaged mountain of the dwarfs. The Great Goblin may bear a bit of a resemblance to Jabba the Hutt in "Star Wars," but he's a memorable character as voiced by Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna). Ian McKellen remains an imposing presence as Gandalf, the Grey Wizard.

In Martin Freeman, Jackson may have found the perfect Bilbo Baggins. Freeman is a delight as a quirky Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes in the BBC's new "Sherlock" and he blossoms in the role of Bilbo. He even looks like a younger Ian Holm, who played the older Bilbo in "Rings" and reprises his role in "The Hobbit."

Freeman also gets to share the very best scene in the film: the first encounter between Bilbo and Gollum, the emaciated figure who was once the Hobbit Smeagol until he fell under the influence of the ring (yes, that ring). Andy Serkis' performance as Gollum is just as brilliant as it was in the "Rings," and the CGI is even better. Since you know where the scene is leading, it has real punch, the kind of emotional impact that is lacking in much of the movie.

It may be a bit unfair, but Jackson has practically invited a comparison between the "Hobbit" trilogy and the second set of "Star Wars" films from George Lucas. Is "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" as bad as "Phantom Menace"? Absolutely not, but it has none of the charm and appeal of Tolkien's book -- and it does not bode particularly well for what eventually will be nine hours of filmmaking.

In a bit of irony, Bilbo Baggins says at the end of the movie: "I do believe the worst is behind us." We can only hope so.

Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.

'THE HOBBIT:
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY'
H *
Rating: PG-13 (for violent battle scenes and scary images)
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
and Ian Holm
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 2 hours,
49 minutes