Like the novel, Jackson's film opens tidily in the Shire, where Bilbo's home is casually invaded by the uninvited passel of dwarves, who proceed to demolish his larder. (I could have lived without the frisbeeing of dinnerware, but I suppose the filmmakers had to do something with their CGI budget, and one can blow only so many smoke rings.) Initially reluctant to join Gandalf and the dwarves on their quest, Bilbo is eventually persuaded, going so far as to sign a contract disavowing any liability for "injuries sustained, including but not limited to laceration, evisceration, and incineration." Freeman makes for an amiable if not quite indelible Bilbo; as Gandalf, Ian McKellen is Ian McKellen (as if you'd want him to be anyone else); and the dwarves—well, there are really too many to keep track of clearly: one is fat, one is old, one seems have absconded with Wyatt Earp's moustache, and their leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage) is not much fond of hobbits. So far, so good.
Once the party sets out on their journey, however, Jackson begins piling on layer after layer of extraneous action and incident. It's not enough that our heroes must fight a goiterous Great Goblin and his terrible horde; they must do battle, too, with a brutal orc warlord who bears a longstanding grudge against Thorin. Meanwhile, a mysterious necromancer has taken up residence in an abandoned fortress, and the woods themselves are showing signs of malignant influence. Even the spiders—whom we won't see in earnest until the next film—have been given backstory...
Indeed, it frequently seems as though Jackson was less interested in making The Hobbit than in remaking his own fabulously successful Lord of the Rings series. A meeting with the elf lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is expanded to include Rings veterans Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) in order that all may discuss the dark tidings sweeping the land, including the discovery of an evil relic: a "Morgul-blade" forged for the Witch-King of Angmar. (That's the chief Nazgul to you and me.) When Gandalf explains, "There is something at work beyond the evil of Smaug, something much more powerful," it's hard to shake the suspicion that Jackson is essentially cross-promoting his earlier films. Once again, Gandalf will have a moth deliver a message to the Great Eagles (something he didn't do in any of the Tolkien books), and once again Orcish warg riders will blanket the plains. And while there may be no Balrog this time out, there is an awfully similar climactic confrontation on a narrow subterranean bridge.
The irony of all this recycling is that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was so rich an epic that Jackson could pick and choose what to keep and what to leave out: no Tom Bombadil, for instance, and no Radagast the Brown. Stretching The Hobbit out to eight or nine or 10 cinematic hours, by contrast, requires not concision but almost constant augmentation. So Radagast, omitted from Jackson's Rings trilogy, is awkwardly given a principal role in his Hobbit. And prepare yourselves: He drives a sleigh pulled by bunnies.