Let's address something right off the bat - I'm a TERRIBLE objective audience for this movie. I first had this book read to me by my father at age 4, and have been madly in love with the world of Middle-earth ever since. When it comes to seeing my favorite written material translated to my favorite artistic medium, logic goes right out the window.
That being said, I've been bracing myself to hate this film ever since the announcement was made this summer that J.R.R. Tolkien's children's story was being stretched into three full movies. As much as I was thankful (mostly) for what Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings movies, this seemed utterly ludicrous and I was expecting to leave the theater in disgust. But after having seen the movie, I'll happily go back for more.
That's not to say that the movie is great. It's not - this isn't the lightning-in-a-bottle "I can't believe they pulled it off!" of The Lord of the Rings or even the trimmed-but-focused and emotionally powerful latter half of the Harry Potter series. But it does pour nearly every detail from the book (as well as some others) onto the screen, and that earns it a LOT of goodwill from me. The opening, from the narrative framing device of Bilbo writing the story to Frodo to the Shire opening with "In a hole in a ground, there lived a hobbit" wins massive points in my book. The inclusion of things like "Chip the Glasses, Crack the Plates" and "Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold" win even more. And the entire opening serves to set the tone as light, fun, full of brighter colors and warmer days than the foreboding atmosphere of the LOTR films.
There's also a rather ingenuous moment where Gandalf (recounting Bullroarer Took's exploits!) talks about stories getting embellished in the telling. And because this is said directly to Bilbo, in a story that Bilbo is writing down years after the fact, it invites the viewer to ascribe anything that gets too ridiculous to this very embellishment on the part of the storyteller.
Unfortunately, the storyteller himself doesn't get quite as much screen time as he deserves. I actually argued years ago that Martin Freeman would be a perfect Bilbo Baggins, and he exceeded even my expectations in the role. Not only does he make everything ever written for the character live and breathe, but he puts his shoulder behind the extra beats that Jackson adds to give Bilbo a bit more of an arc in the first movie. He pulls it off, has great chemistry with Gandalf and the dwarves (especially Thorin), and is just dynamite in the Riddle Contest near the end of the movie (which is nearly verbatim from page to screen). But there are a few too many instances where the film cuts away from him to give time to the B-story of the White Council and the Necromancer.
Arguably the biggest knock against The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that it decides to be a prequel rather than a completely self-contained story. There are several annoying instances where characters and plot items get referenced or appear to interrupt the proceedings, accompanied by their LOTR musical cue in a tiresome and obvious "Hey, remember this?" manner. Moments that aren't earned by the story of The Hobbit but rather rely on an audience's familiarity with the other movies. And this stuff is almost completely relegated to anything involving Gandalf during those moments in the book where he just wasn't there for whatever reason. In the movies, we get the reason in agonizing detail, and it's rarely worth the amount of time it takes up.
The other problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is this:
By stretching out the sparse sub-300-page book's narrative to three films, not a lot happens, even with the inclusion of characters like Radagast discovering the Necromancer (yes, discovering) and the White Council meeting at Rivendell. The movie feels less like a full movie and more like Episode 1 of a Hobbit miniseries. Part of how Jackson chooses to approach this problem (instead of, you know, ONLY MAKING ONE MOVIE) is by drawing out action scenes from the book. And while these do go on too long (especially in the final half-hour of the film), they at least still feel tonally appropriate. When The Hobbit is getting over-the-top, it's in a way that feels in-line with a fairy-tale adventure story. Especially one being told by someone who wants to make it seem as fantastic as possible.
But as I said, there's a lot in this film that I'm a sucker for. While the embellishments of Gandalf's other hobby don't sit great with me, they still mantain the same tone as the rest of the proceedings and have the good grace to only crop up a couple times. The extra material related to Thorin, however, I really like. In the books, there's a passing mention to Azog the goblin (who killed Thorin's grandfather Thror in Moria), and the movie gives him a bigger role both in tying together the very episodic action/escape beats from the book and in giving Thorin some extra character development while showing the audience how he got the name "Okenshield." (a highlight of the film for me). Azog is also likely how the film-makers are setting up the Battle of Five Armies for the third movie in a more long-form manner. It's these sorts of touches that I can stand, partly because they directly impact Bilbo and the party that we're most invested in, and also because it makes a game attempt at changing the book's "this happens, then this happens, then this and this" to "this happened, which resulted in this, but then this happened because of something else."
So yeah, call it a passing grade. It's not the Hobbit movie I wanted, but MY Hobbit movie is undeniably in there, and I found that I don't mind going through everything else to get to it. Yes, making it a trilogy was ridiculous, but not fatally. And most importantly the film retains the more fantastical light-hearted and adventurous tone of the book while still giving a broader view of events.
. . . And now I'm stuck waiting a full year for the next installment. Deja vu.