"IN A HOLE in the ground there lived a hobbit." That's how proto-nerd J.R.R. Tolkien began The Hobbit, his charming children's book that inspired The Lord of the Rings, one of the most extraordinary doorstops of English literature. Compared to the gloomy, intricate Rings saga, The Hobbit is a short, fast-paced, goofy adventure—the tale of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who lived in a hole, went on a quest, had a surprisingly good time, and returned home all the better for it.

That's Tolkien's The Hobbit. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is something else: Hollow, meandering, repetitive, and tedious, it covers only the first part of Tolkien's book, yet somehow feels longer than any of Jackson's excellent Lord of the Rings films. Rings pared down a long story to its best parts, but the bloated Hobbit desperately grasps for more. To stretch The Hobbit into three movies, Jackson—and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro—have shoehorned in material from Tolkien's notes, plus some stuff they invented for shits and giggles. (When George Lucas made the first film in another prequel trilogy, he too realized he had to pack his story with filler. "I know I'm going to need to use Hamburger Helper to get it to two hours," he said, "but that's what I want to do." Welcome to The Hobbit: Hamburger Helper.)

Ugh. This review's a bummer to write. Before you nerds anthrax me, know that I was looking forward to this movie as much as anybody. As much as you, even! Please don't anthrax me.

The Hobbit isn't all sluggish bumbling: Ian McKellen, returning as the wizard Gandalf, is predictably fantastic, and Martin Freeman—who's famous to the sort of people who watch British TV as The Office's Tim and Sherlock's Watson—is as earnest, loveable, and flustered a Bilbo as anyone could hope for. The production design's top-notch, and the music's great, aside from an unfortunate musical number in which dwarves merrily sing about washing dishes—

Goddammit. I was trying to write about the good parts, but then I remembered another terrible part. That's The Hobbit in general: Glimpses of how the movie could be good, constantly interrupted by empty digressions that yank the story away from Bilbo and make Tolkien's vast Middle-earth seem disappointingly small. Awkward cameos from Rings castmembers? Check. Lazy slapstick? Check. A babbling wizard straight out of Shrek with bird shit on his face who rides around on a sled pulled by friendly rabbits? Who then fights a ghost? Check. A story that drunkenly wobbles from one setpiece to another until it just sort of... ends? Check.

Maybe in the next two films, Jackson's wearying self-indulgence will pay off—maybe all this Hamburger Helper will magically become a cinematic feast worthy of the proud tables of Rivendell! But even if that happens? Man. It won't make sitting through this thing any easier.