After the hideous misfire that was The Lovely Bones, its little surprise that Peter Jackson opted to return to the scene of his greatest triumph, Middle-earth. But in ignoring Thomas Wolfes sagacious warning to never go home again, Jackson cast his fate, and hard-won reputation, on a folly thats not nearly as hobbit-forming as his spectacular Lord of the Rings. Like that Oscar-winning classic, his Hobbit is also a trilogy of three-hour movies, the first of which has been dubbed An Unexpected Journey. But instead of having three epic novels as a source, this time hes attempting to expand a single 300-page childrens book into a nine-hour presentation.

The aggrandizing of such a slender tale is very much on a par with filmmakers attempting to adapt a 30-page Dr. Seuss offering into a single two-hour flick. And the results are just as anemic. I wont go so far as to say Jacksons Hobbit is a bore, but its certainly a struggle to sit through, something I would never say about his three Lord of the Rings films, which were all briskly paced and stuffed full of fascinating characters. Jackson and his hoard of co-screenwriters know this to be true, and in a desperate attempt to disguise this films slightness, theyve invented appendages to the sacred texts of J.R.R. Tolkien to provide an excuse for resurrecting a handful of beloved characters from The Lord of the Rings films. And no doubt, the sight of Frodo (Elijah Wood), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) are a sight for tired eyes, but they cant begin to compensate for this Journeys blatant deficiencies. Nor can the momentarily intriguing gimmick of shooting the film in digital 3-D at twice the normal 24 frames per second.

The higher speed (available at only handful of theaters) yields a cleaner, purer look along with eliminating the strobing that can occur during action scenes. But it also makes the characters look like theyre appearing in an afternoon soap, in addition to causing the manmade sets to look as cheap and fake as if youd been granted a backstage pass to Jacksons studio. The result is more of a distraction than an enhancement, which might not be such a bad thing when you consider how dull and flat a script were dealing with. The duration may be nearly three hours, but other than a lot of expository dialogue and perfunctory battles with orcs and goblins, nothing really happens beyond introducing the characters and establishing their quest, which is to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from a gold-coveting dragon named Smaug.

Missing are all semblances of character development, along with any attempts at creating tight emotional bonds on a level matching Sam and Frodo, who provided the heart and soul of LOTR. About as close as we come and its not very close are the shaky bonds that form between Gandalf, once again played by the great Ian McKellen, and a reclusive, young (the story is set 60 years prior to the events of LOTR) Bilbo Baggins, now portrayed by Martin Freeman, a middling actor with a preponderance of bombs on his dodgy resume. I know Frodo; Frodo is a personal favorite of mine; and sir, youre no Frodo. Youre more like vanilla pudding, colorless, shapeless and virtually tasteless. Certainly not the sort of hobbit one would want to invest nine hours in. In fact, I grew tired of him after about 40 minutes. But even a wizard as wonderful and intriguing as Gandalf fades into these lush Middle-earth backdrops. The 13 Dwarfs accompanying him and Bilbo on this journey are no great shakes, either. None of them stands out, not even their leader, Thorin (the hunky but overmatched Richard Armitage), who Jackson and company futilely try to establish as this trilogys Aragorn. Spending time with these lumps is tantamount to spending an evening with 13 sleep-inducing insurance salesman fruitlessly trying to sell to you.

At least the action scenes still rock, especially when a couple of rock creatures do battle, but even they like the rest of the picture have too much of a been-there-done-that feel. Worse, this franchise lacks a villain as powerful and terrifying as Sauron. Sorry, but a gold-hoarding dragon just isnt in the same league. At least we still have Gollum (again portrayed through capture motion by the brilliant Andy Serkis), and its no coincidence that Journey comes alive when he appears. Unfortunately, thats somewhere around the two-hour mark, but seeing him and learning how Bilbo Baggins came into possession of Gollums Precious is almost worth the wait. But as great as Serkis is, he cant begin to make The Hobbit look anything but short.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.) Cast includes Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage. Co-written and directed by Peter Jackson. Grade: C