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.