Here’s a lousy plot for a Batman story: the Joker plants a bomb of lethal laughing gas that will choke half of Gotham City, and the bomb is set to go off in sixty years.

And here’s what looks like a non sequitur but isn’t: I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night.

In the case of the Lord of the Rings movies, waiting eleven days to see one of the films would have been cause to revoke my nerd card. Not so with The Hobbit; the scuttlebutt on these movies has been so atrocious that even the most die-hard Tolkien fan has to walk into the theater with dread rather than excitement.

I’d heard two things going in. 1) The movie is horrible. 2) The movie isn’t so bad, if you just pretend that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the novel. I’m not sure I can agree with either of those.

It’s not a good film, but I think there is a pretty good film in there, probably about 90 minutes in length, which I’d argue is the length Peter Jackson should have been shooting for. The Hobbit is a kid’s book, and nobody should expect a kid to sit still for three hours. When they first talked about doing two films, I thought two 90 minute films would have been just about perfect. You’d still take your kids to some good kid’s movies. Three 90 minute films would have been stretching it. Three three-hour films is just a really bad idea.

Okay, says the marketing department, but doesn’t the audience already expect an epic Tolkien trilogy from Peter Jackson? Wouldn’t it run against the audience’s expectations to deliver a kid’s movie when the last trilogy was composed of complex, violent, scary, and otherwise distinctively un-kid’s-movies?

Sure. And you could make the argument that The Lord of the Rings is the worst sequel ever written. The Hobbit is 200 pages of light reading, while its sequel is 1200 pages of some of the densest reading in the genre, including appendices and untranslated Elvish poetry. Myself, I think The Lord of the Rings is the better read, but as a follow-up to The Hobbit, it’s a change of pace to say the least. 

And here’s where we get to why this hobbit movie disappoints: there just isn’t enough source material. Yes, there’s tons of Tolkien source material.  Believe me, the day they want to film the Silmarillion is the day I pre-order the DVD. But The Hobbit itself is light fare, and Jackson stretches it out with an overburdened subplot about a mysterious necromancer who isn’t mysterious at all.

Now perhaps I ought to warn people that this paragraph contains a spoiler, but if so, it doesn’t spoil much.  The Lord of the Rings films were such blockbusters that even people who aren’t Tolkien fans can guess who this mysterious necromancer really is.  Those who are fans –or even those who paid attention to the first 20 minutes of this film– know perfectly well that Our Heroes won’t actually get around to dealing with the necromancer for sixty years.

The upshot is that I felt the same way about An Unexpected Journey as I did about the film adaptation of 300: my least favorite parts were the extraneous bits the director decided to cram in there. In the case of 300, it’s the subplot with Leonidas’s wife and the corrupt senator, which amounted to maybe ten or fifteen minutes of screen time. In the case of the newest installment from Peter Jackson, it’s more than an hour of screen time, and none of it has any tension for me.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that there are plenty of built-in bathroom breaks, which you need in a film that runs nearly three hours. For those who haven’t seen it yet, anytime Radagast or Galadriel walk on stage, feel free to get up and stretch your legs.  You won’t miss much.

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