And now, after three viewings, I think it's time for me to write up some thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Spoilers ahead!
First, a disclaimer: my loyalty rests with J.R.R. Tolkien, not Peter Jackson. I appreciated a very great deal of what Jackson achieved with The Fellowship of the Ring (despite the way he treated hobbits: that is, only the characters of Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee were recognizable from Tolkien's writings, and the hobbits really are rather the point), especially the manner in which he brought the physical world/landscape of Middle-earth to life, and the way he showed a sophisticated appreciation of the importance of Boromir in the larger story of the Fellowship. I loved his realization of Rohan in The Two Towers, but by the time The Return of the King came along, I think Jackson not only had lost sight of Tolkien's story, but he'd also had caught the dreaded George Lucas Disease, becoming unable to see the forest of The Message for the trees of his groundbreaking Special Effects. I rewatch The Fellowship regularly. I rewatch sections of The Two Towers. I don't rewatch The Return of the King.
I'll also admit that I was ecstatic at the thought of seeing what Guillermo del Toro could do with Middle-earth. Alas.
I do believe The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ultimately will rank for me just barely below The Fellowship of the Ring but far, far above The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
Let me begin with a few of my main criticisms, so I can end on the high point this film deserves.
1. Jackson still has George Lucas Disease. His special effects swallow up portions of the film, and this throws off the rhythm of the storytelling and hinders the plausibility of the action. The worst culprits here are Radagast's mad dash to draw away the wargs and their orc riders, which appears quite ridiculous and impractical, and the ludicrously exaggerated fall of the dwarves and Gandalf to the depths below Goblin Town on a portion of a wooden bridge, which should've left half of their number crippled or killed. In order to take their very real threats seriously, we need to see heroes bruised and bloodied and limping now and again, not plummeting hundreds and hundreds of feet and then having a good laugh. And Jackson needs to learn that new filming technologies should serve the story, not hijack it.
2. Radagast. I've always had a soft spot for Radagast the Brown (says the leather-free, vegetarian dog-lover), not to mention Tolkien's own environmental thought, and I'm deeply disappointed that Peter Jackson made Radagast into a visual joke with a bird's nest on his head and bird droppings matting his hair. (It also represents a waste of a fine actor, Sylvester McCoy, one of my favorite Doctors. The gravitas he could've brought to the role is apparent when he contradicts Gandalf and tells him that, no, Dol Guldur is no longer abandoned. I got chills!) Jackson apparently confused Radagast with Merlin from T.H. White's The Once and Future King; despite (or perhaps because of) my love of Arthuriana, I don't roll that way, either.
3. Azog. I understand why Jackson brought Azog the Defiler forward in time from Tolkien's work to become Thorin's nemesis (although Thorin didn't need a personal nemesis; the conflict would've worked as a larger, impersonal clash between dwarves versus orcs), but visually Azog is an absurd caricature. He's bigger than all the others, albino (a response to criticisms of racism because past orcs were dark?), and a poorly-done CGI. He gives me the same impression I get from two-dimensional video-game villains. I think of how raw and visceral the emotional impact of the eye contact between Lurtz and Boromir (and, later, Lurtz and Aragorn) was in The Fellowship of the Ring; none of that is evident in similar exchanges between Azog and poor Thorin, despite the fact Richard Armitage as Thorin is acting his heart out.
4. The White Council. I'm really, really grateful that Jackson erred on the side of importing other story elements from Tolkien rather than making them up himself, and I have no problem with seeing the White Council addressing the issue of the Necromancer (who is, of course, Sauron, and who is, of course, voiced by The Batch, who will also provide the voice of Smaug). But the writing for this scene was horrendous! I understand why relations are strained between Saruman and, well, everybody, but where is the chemistry? Galadriel and Elrond have known each other for ages - she's his mother-in-law, for heaven's sake! Were the actors in different studios when they recorded those stilted lines? While watching it I felt genuinely uncomfortable for everyone involved.
5. Nooooo!!!! For a director as accomplished as Jackson is, he continues to make some fairly sophomoric missteps. A few of the lines intended to be humorous fall flat (including a joke about an insect caught on Radagast's tongue, which didn't get so much as a chuckle from the audience any time I saw the film), a few moments intended to be serious are hilarious (King Thranduil may be abandoning the dwarves to their terrible fate, but look, is he on a moose? seriously?), and the slow-motion "Nooooooo!" gets terribly overused (Thorin does it twice, Balin does it once - more symptoms of George Lucas Disease!).
Now, on to some praise.
1. Acting. This is the strongest aspect of the movie. I've loved Martin Freeman in so many roles, from secondary-but-vital (The Last King) to leading man (Nightwatching) to pure genius (Sherlock) and many others besides. He is perfection as Bilbo. His nods to Ian Holm's likewise brilliant portrayal are just the right touch, and yet he makes the part his own. He is pitch-perfect all the way through, very much the hobbit Tolkien described in every possible way. He makes this film.
I knew Richard Armitage from his excellent portrayal of John Thornton in North and South, and he doesn't disappoint as Thorin Oakenshield (even if he looks less like a dwarf than like the love child of a Ranger and a Klingon; that's decidedly not a bad thing). I blame Jackson for his all-too instant recovery at the end of the film, because Armitage seems to opt for the darker and grittier interpretation when given an opportunity. I expect his death scene at the end of the trilogy will be amazing.
Ken Stott is a revelation to me as my favorite member of Thorin's company from the novel, Balin. I'm in love with his performance. I knew James Nesbitt from Jekyll and Five Minutes of Heaven, so I knew he'd make a great Bofur, but I was particularly touched by his Bofur's chemistry with Freeman's Bilbo, which is a delight to watch.
2. Riddles in the Dark. One of the best things ever in the history of the world. Worth the price of admission by itself. My words can't do it justice. When the DVD is available, I will rewatch this scene an alarming number of times. And then I'll rewatch it some more.
3. Middle-earth. Again, Peter Jackson really captures the look of the different landscapes and landmarks in Middle-earth, from Bag End and Hobbiton to Erebor and Dale to Goblin Town and the Eagles' eyrie. He also illustrates ably some of the more fantastical, harder-to-visualize aspects of the story, including the camp of the three mountain trolls and the fight of the stone giants.
4. The Dwarves at Bag End. I really didn't want to leave Bag End. The scene in which the dwarves sing and Bilbo listens from the other room is a nutshell encapsulation of everything I love most in Tolkien's novel. I also greatly appreciate how each dwarf has his own personality and identity, from his clothing to his fighting style. Even though there are twelve of them, they are distinctive characters from the very beginning.
5. Canon. There was much worry from many (including yours truly) about how Jackson would "fill out" the story of The Hobbit, but the way he incorporates material from the appendices ends up giving this adaptation perhaps the closest relationship to Tolkien's texts of any of Jackson's films. (Perhaps this says more about Jackson's other films, but there you go.) These additions aren't seamlessly shoe-horned in (see my criticism of the writing of the White Council meeting), but for the most part they work. I'll be intrigued to see how the Necromancer plot line is handled.
Entire scenes and sections of dialogue are taken directly from the book. Oh, and speaking of direct quotes, it's so much fun to hear several of Tolkien's songs in the same film!
A parting thought: I am a tremendous fan of all of the music Howard Shore created for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he is in perfect form for The Hobbit. Gorgeous music, both reminiscent of LOTR and strikingly original when it needs to be. In addition, Neil Finn's "Song of the Lonely Mountain" is my favorite of all the end credit songs from Jackson's Middle-earth movies. It's an able variation on Tolkien's original verse, and the sounds of the forge in the background are consummately dwarvish.
Is it a perfect film? Not by a long shot. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. More than once. I'm already looking forward to analyzing it with my students in my Tolkien course next semester.
Your mileage, of course, may vary.