Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was so much more than a wow-machine. The more tender lines can still be rolled over in the mind: Aragorn murmuring "I have seen the White City, long ago . . ."
You'd hope for similar transcendence in the series' prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But it's a mosh pit of monsters, with more simple, even childish aims. Richard Armitage, stalwart but dull, plays the landless king Thorin Oakenshield. Under the advice of the wizard Gandalf, he is taking along the fussy and hardly battle-hardened Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) on a quest. Thorin and a dozen-plus cartoonish dwarves journey to their ancient mountain kingdom, currently occupied by Smaug, a dragon.
Except for Cate Blanchett, sauntering in satin as Galadriel, the Lady of Lorien, The Hobbit is a female-free zone. One misses the girl-power moments from the original trilogy, such as when Liv Tyler's Arwen gave the Ringwraiths a much-needed bath.
Instead of romance, there are creatures: leprous orcs mounted on wolf-like "wargs"; a goblin king with a crown of bones, bibbed with a wobbling goiter the size of a minivan; a trio of gross, ravenous trolls, who argue over the proper way to prepare hobbit for dinner. Grandest of all are stone -giants in a boulder-hurling battle on a stormy mountain peak.
It's a well-stocked menagerie, but is it more? The creatures are bad villains or good heroes here, and the most serious personal conflict is confined to one mere character, the oily, murderous Gollum (voiced again by Andy Serkis), who shows a startling range of emotions and doubt in his rolling, softball-sized eyes.
The Hobbit hints at the evil of a necromancer, a minor character whose worse misdeeds are being saved for the second and third parts. Yet this movie's biggest achievement is necromancy: burglarizing the tomb of the great Peter Lorre, the clear model for Gollum in the uneven teeth, the wateriness of gaze and the ingratiating yet grating hiss.
'The Hobbit' opens in wide release Friday, Dec. 14.