About two-thirds of the way through “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” a dear old friend turns up. As played with the body movements and wheedling voice of Andy Serkis — he may be the best unrecognizable actor in the movies — Gollum is the same devolved computer-generated flapdoodle he was in director Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films, now a decade old. The same but more so: Advances in digital animation, along with purported “improved technologies” like 3-D and faster projection speeds, mean that Gollum now practically slithers into the audience’s laps.
The scene is the celebrated riddle contest between Gollum and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the title hobbit and reluctant hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s much-loved prequel story. It takes place far below the surface of the earth, among dripping stalactites, and if you’re a fan of Tolkien’s mythos in any of its versions, you know it’s perhaps the most pivotal moment in the whole megillah: the scene where Bilbo gets his paws on That Ring. And it works onscreen - beautifully - because it contains a crucial element the rest of this dazzling, busy, fundamentally tedious movie lacks: dramatic conflict.
The great thing about Gollum, of course, is that he’s conflicted enough on his own, the two sides of his personality alternately barking and whimpering at each other. But the riddle scene has an energy that only partly comes from a character sharply etched and well played. Unlike most of this nearly three-hour film — the first in a planned trilogy that will bring Tolkien’s literary appetizer to the on-screen length of his main course — it’s a sequence where we sense a larger, more urgent narrative momentum. Something is at stake. Something is happening.
Tolkien’s “Hobbit” is a quest narrative; Jackson’s “Unexpected Journey” is the first leg of that quest. It’s a throat-clearer, really: the opening third in the story of how a shy, bourgeois hobbit leaves his comfy hobbit-hole for a grand adventure with 13 dwarves and one hambone of a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellan, reprising his “LOTR” role). Tolkien wrote a tale of “there and back again,” of the dwarves’ journey to their ancient mountain homeland to free it of a dragon named Smaug. This movie spends 169 minutes and doesn’t even get us “there.”
There will be many who may not mind, primarily the millions for whom Jackson’s “Rings” trilogy remains a defining generational experience. But it needs to be said that “An Unexpected Journey” feels like an overproduced amble — and a familiar amble at that — next to the earlier trilogy’s epic myth-making. Is it possible to have been spoiled by the rich vision of “The Lord of the Rings” (not to mention all the films that have imitated it since) — the awe-inspiring New Zealand fantasyscapes, the muscular CGI evocation of faerie, the crashing battle lines of Orcs? “The Hobbit” feels like the latest thing, but it never feels new.
Instead, Jackson gives us the latest in cinema technology: 3-D and a projection speed of 48 frames per second (rather than the usual 24, though the film is also being shown in 24 fps at some theaters). You’ll be seeing a lot of 48 fps in the future; among other reasons, it’s a way for the Hollywood content corporations (Warner Bros. in this case) to force the remaining movie theater holdouts to convert to digital projection. The resulting visuals are both remarkable and discombobulating. The film’s images are astonishingly detailed, possessed of a hyperreal clarity that adds to the sense you’re watching a waking dream. The downside is that “The Hobbit” no longer looks like a movie at all. It looks like a video.
It’s a hard thing to describe, but I’ll try. Instead of film’s burnished textures — the subtle gradations of lighting and color that have sustained the medium for over a century, even into an age when most “films” are shot on digital equipment — the 48 fps “Hobbit” has the hot, live presence we associate with television shows. More than anything, it resembles an insanely high-end “Masterpiece Theatre” production: “I, Claudius” with a big budget and endless banks of computers. This may be the future of movies. We may all have to adjust. I still don’t like it. That’s partly because I’m a stick in the mud (I don’t think I’m alone), but partly because something genuinely seems to have been lost in the translation — a visual depth, a quality of mystery, that soaks into the very experience of watching a movie and the meanings we take away from it. There are sights to make your jaw hit the floor in “The Hobbit,” but there’s hardly any mystery. That hurts more than you’d think.
So when Bilbo and his troupe of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), enter the Elven city of Rivendell, it’s as though we’re looking at a fetishistically detailed Maxfield Parrish screensaver — a triumph of digital imagineering to which we need bring none of our imagination. There are more old friends here: Elf king Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Gandalf’s fellow wizard Saruman (a frail Christopher Lee), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Tolkien’s nod to the Lady in the Lake of Arthurian legend. We’re delighted to see them, too, because all those dwarves in Bilbo’s company — Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Moe, Larry, Curly. . . — blur together in an unindividuated pig pile.
Subdividing “The Hobbit” into a triptych — the other two films will be released late in 2013 and 2014 — reveals the book’s structural flaws: It’s a whole lot of wandering with a payoff that comes only in the last act, and it lacks a villain. (The dragon barely counts, and he’s not even in this movie.) Jackson wants to cram everything in, every rune and roundelay, but he also has to deliver the frenzied battle sequences the masses expect, and he gins up additional conflict with the introduced character of Azog, a slavering Orc king who wants to behead Thorin as he did his father. (Methinks someone has been watching “Game of Thrones.”) Azog previously existed as a footnote in Tolkien’s “Rings” appendices and as a villain in a 2006 computer game; here, he’s a bellowing digital baddie who carries almost no dramatic weight.
More successful are the scenes in the film’s final third, when the heroes are taken prisoner deep under the mountains by the minions of the Great Goblin, voiced by Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna Everidge). With his Marty Feldman eyes and a huge sac-like wattle swaying beneath his chin, this character is a fantastically disgusting sight, and the manic chase scene through the underground crags and crannies is enjoyably overdone. It’s as if Jackson were finally admitting he’s making a theme-park ride stuffed with leprechauns.
An earlier sequence involving mountain giants who toss boulders at each other is more typical: noisy, visually ingenious, and surprisingly dull, largely because the main characters are reduced to pinballs amid the slabs of falling rock. Long on spectacle and short on story-telling sustenance, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” ironically unfolds almost exactly as expected. And there are two more installments to come. Apparently, the road really does go ever on.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.