Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy says "it's a bit of a slog" but quite likes the overall tone of the picture:
There are elements in this new film that are as spectacular as much of the Rings trilogy was, but there is much that is flat-footed and tedious as well, especially in the early going. This might be one venture where, rather than DVDs offering an “Expanded Director's Version,” there might be an appetite for a “Condensed Director's Cut” in a single normal-length film.
James Rocchi, writing for Box Office, loathes the 48fps projection offered by some theaters as much as he likes Martin Freeman's Bilbo.
What the 48 frame-per-second projection actually means is flat lighting, a plastic-y look, and, worst of all, a strange sped-up effect that makes perfectly normal actions—say, Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins placing a napkin on his lap—look like meth-head hallucinations. I wanted to ask the projectionist to double-check the equipment, but really, I should just ask Jackson why he wanted his $270 million blockbuster to look like a TV movie ... But thank Martin Freeman for his work as Bilbo, the ostensible hero of the series, although he does precious little in this first throat-clearing film. His Bilbo is an immensely human, warm and humble everyman hurled into danger and threat by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who insists he aid a group of dwarfs determined to regain their ancestral home from a dragon.
Variety's Peter Debruge is disappointed:
While Peter Jackson's prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" delivers more of what made his earlier trilogy so compelling -- colorful characters on an epic quest amid stunning New Zealand scenery -- it doesn't offer nearly enough novelty to justify the three-film, nine-hour treatment, at least on the basis of this overlong first installment, dubbed "An Unexpected Journey."
Indiewire's Rodrigo Perez ridicules the bloat, which includes dual nested prologues and a three-hour running time, but likes it when it gets moving:
As epic, grandiose, and emotionally appealing as the previous pictures, 'The Hobbit' doesn’t move far from the mold, but it’s a thrilling ride that’s one of the most enjoyable, exciting and engaging tentpoles of the year.
On a consistent basis, it’s almost as if Jackson forgets he has two more films to release and is forced to pump the brakes. Tangents pop out of nowhere, dialogue scenes are stretched into infinity, and a familiar structure of capture followed by rousing escape, is consistently repeated. Much of the film feels like it’s purposely attempting to stall the dwarves’ quest from progressing.
Sounds like the decision to interpolate it out over three movies was a poor one: there simply isn't the material to cover the stretch. This is too bad, because Jackson's technique is "high-budget BBC miniseries", not "cinema", so the decision to go long (whatever its motives) should have played to his strong suits.