The best movie of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was the first one because of the way it brought together a cast of characters who were united with a common goal. "The Fellowship of the Rings" set up the groundwork for an epic adventure and gave weight to what was at stake with the daunting task they faced through the course of the trilogy.
While "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" isn't necessarily supposed to be so heavy, it followed a similar progression, which bodes in its favor. "The Hobbit" was, in its own right, a decent starting point for its storytelling, and it likely will be my favorite in this trilogy, as well.
"The Hobbit" is the story of Bilbo Baggins and how he got caught up in his own adventures (which he alludes to in the original trilogy). The wizard Gandalf the Grey convinces Bilbo to join a group of dwarves who are on a quest to take back their homeland, which was taken over by a dragon.
These dwarves try to come off as endearing, likeable characters—they eat Bilbo's entire food stash, make jokes, and there's even a fat one for some additional comic relief—but they don't quite have the same charm or command the same attention as the original fellowship. In fact, they're rather forgettable. They all just kind of bobble along and lean mostly on Gandalf's leadership to keep them safe.
Partly the reason they do that is because Gandalf turns into a totally awesome action hero. He has several cool battle tricks up his sleeve to foil his enemies as he wields his staff. At times, he almost seems like he's from a videogame. Sheer entertainment.
Several other familiar characters are present throughout. Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum, whose late appearance really was a turning point in the movie, sort of refocusing and re-energizing the film. Gollum and Bilbo have a great exchange of riddles and banter in one scene that was well executed. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) also return. At this point, the dwarves reach Rivendell and seek counsel from the elves, similarly to "The Fellowship."
The problem with "The Hobbit" is that too many scenes were gimmicky, corny and childish, though that isn't totally unlike the book. While at Bilbo's house, the dwarves toss dishes around the house in an assembly line of sorts as they try to clean. It felt like an animated movie montage.
During a battle scene inside a mountain, Gandalf and the clan try to escape the horde of orcs chasing them. At one point, the dwarves are forced to resort to an unstable ledge that eventually falls way further down the cave, but somehow stays upright and lands in such a perfect way that they can get off unharmed.
After all that, the master orc still tracks them down and threatens to kill them, but after too much of the typical bad-guy-standing-around-and-trash-talking, Gandalf wipes him out with a single swipe of a blade. Lot of other silliness, even hokiness, were peppered throughout the movie.
On a side note, a lot of attention was brought to the way director Peter Jackson shot the film, which was 48 fps and in 3D. There definitely are times when your eyes will get a little buggy from the weird motion capture of certain scenes, particularly some of the wide-angle shots in the first 45 minutes or so. But the issues aren't as bad as they were made to be.
The ending point was similar to "The Fellowship" as well, with the looming journey picking up in scale. It'll be interesting to see how much the final two installments of this trilogy can really extract from a single book without dragging and adding too much filler.