While I enjoyed the previous two installments of the Hobbit trilogy (An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug) when many others have derided them as a diet version of The Lord of the Rings or an over-inflated expansion of a very small book, I can say that I actually agree with them.
Here's where I think the problem lies, but with also a little understanding to go along with them (written in the short, short version):
The films ARE a "diet version" of The Lord of the Rings, but...
They were never meant to be anything bigger. J.R.R. Tolkien's novelization of The Hobbit is a not-even-300 page children's tale that is lush with whimsy and delight with many of the darker areas skimmed over or broadened for the sake of a smoother read. The book was never very detailed in its description of events and battles, instead favoring the kid-friendly tone of the simple comings-and-goings and thoughts of a particularly adventurous member of a secluded, innocent race of people.
Bilbo's journey with the dwarves was a tale of recovery and conquest, with the company looking to regain what was taken. In Rings, Frodo's journey was that of destruction, looking to rid the world of what evil itself was looking to regain what was taken. The drama and tragedy was more overwhelming in the previous trilogy, in my opinion, given the gravity of the situation that was placed on the shoulders of our adventuring heroes. In The Hobbit, we are experiencing a very personal story with consequences much smaller in scale and Middle-earth-bound importance in comparison to Rings. The events, therefore, have a smaller effect on the world around them (though they set up bigger events for the later stories in the timeline of the Third Age).
With that in mind, there was a LOT to be embellished upon, but also a lot more liberties to be taken than with the much grander, more written-in-lavish-detail Lord of the Rings trilogy of books. Which brings us to our next "problem"...
The Hobbit movies are over-inflated, with many fabrications from the mind of Peter Jackson, but...
Since when was that a bad thing? At LEAST we got a trilogy of movies from the original creator/director of The Lord of the Rings who gave us MORE Middle-earth, and not some rushed version like the cartoons that feel more like a simple, 80s sword-and-sorcery epic with very little understanding of what is going on.
While I can understand that the films may be a bit long with some needless drawing-out of scenes and added characters (Legolas and the Jackson/Boyens-created Tauriel), but in the end we are still getting more Middle-earth. And nearly every memorable moment from the book received an extended set piece (most notably Bilbo and the dragon Smaug), so nothing was really left out. My only sadness is that it took so long for us to get these films, which may have benefited from being made at least eight years earlier. Which brings to the next potential issue...
Peter Jackson and MGM/New Line are trying too hard to capitalize on what made the original trilogy great, but...
What that at least gives us are some characters who, given the lengthened screen time, may actually make us care about them. Granted, having thirteen dwarves does make it difficult to really attach yourself to any particular character (though I like Richard Armitage's portrayal of Thorin, though it is NOTHING what I had envisioned from the book, and Ken Stott as Balin who is essentially the heart of the traveling company), but like a television miniseries, more time creates more drama and personality to make the inevitable end much more bittersweet.
The only issue is, unlike Fellowship of the Ring, there haven't been that many moments that have really stood out for any of the characters (like Boromir's death scene at the conclusion of Fellowship, for instance). But, that isn't to say the soon-to-be-released The Battle of the Five Armies won't present us with such a situation.
At times, it feels as though the love and devotion from the film makers weren't in this film as much as was with The Lord of the Rings films. Which brings me to my last points...
Where's the whimsy, care, and love from the books, and on that note, the film makers?
It has been long noted that Peter Jackson did not want to return to Middle-earth as director. For years, he worked pre-production as producer with Guillermo del Toro on hand as the director. When scheduling issues pushed del Toro on to make Pacific Rim, Jackson begrudgingly came forth to return as director.
Where I think The Hobbit may have benefited from a new set of eyes and imagination (especially those of del Toro), I think the films needed a bit of a lighter tone. I think del Toro's penchant for darkness and the strange came into play with much of his script entries and character creations (much of which were used even after he left production), and Jackson ran with it rather than putting his own personality into the mix. While much of this is heresay, the feeling of the above situation definitely feels the case.
Watching Jackson's production diaries that he posted over the months of filming really drew that conclusion to a face as the man appeared stressed beyond a thread, and at times almost depressed. One can only imagine that if the ringleader is feeling pain of being overworked with something he thought he was finished with, the rest of the cast and crew will feel it as well.
WITH ALL THAT BEING SAID, here are my final thoughts as to why the movies HAVEN'T WORKED for many fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but why it mostly HAS WORKED for myself:
POSSIBLY HAVEN'T WORKED FOR AUDIENCES because:
1) No character has truly stood out with a down-to-earth portrayal for us to connect to.
2) The films have a particular FEEL of embellishment, as though the majority of what is being seen on screen is not Tolkien, but fabricated by the film makers.
3) Shoe-horned Lord of the Rings character, with a made-up character, makes their scenes feel false to fans of the books.
4) Over indulgence of CGI in situations where The Lord of the Rings (over ten-years prior) FLOURISHED without having it. We really didn't need an all-CGI villain in Azog (though I understand why they did with him), and we especially didn't need to abandon the make-up version of Bolg for an all-CGI version. His battles with Legolas (who wasn't in the book to begin with) felt like wasted screen time.
5) The love triangle between two characters not in the book and with one of the dwarves was not really necessary, and again made many of the scenes feel false.
6) Introducing the name "Sauron" instead of maintaining "The Necromancer" felt very much like an appeasement to non-fans to connect these films with the prior trilogy.
7) Radagast the Brown was overly disgusting with his bird-shit hat.
8) Many of the scenes with the dwarves and Bilbo are long and dialogue-heavy, breaking the pace of the film and dragging it along at parts.
9) The movies are very scaled-down in comparison to The Lord of the RIngs, which is understandable YET also a bit deceiving, given the fact that The Hobbit was stretched into a trilogy is far less information and epic-ness than the prior trilogy.
10) Howard Shore's musical score hasn't stood out as memorable or catchy as the work he did on Rings, though again I feel that may come off of the vibe Jackson has made with his seemingly tired approach to the material.
WHY THE FILMS HAVE WORKED FOR ME:
1) I was able to turn off my mind to The Lord of the Rings films for the most part as I watched An Unexpected Journey. With that in mind, I was able to sit back and enjoy what I've seen so far as films of a different, somewhat-connected trilogy, that play almost as a 'pre-spinoff' rather than a 'prequel'.
2) I actually DO enjoy the connections made to the the other films, giving the uninitiated a way to connect themselves to what they've seen before. These small connections (like using Sauron's name, and having Ian Holm and Elijah Wood return for the prologue) make for a comforting nostalgic memory come into place.
3) I love Middle-earth, and three SIX-HOUR movies would have been fine for me.
4) I read the book just before watching the films, and much of what is in the book is in the film. The embellishments (for the most part) did not take me out of the film.
5) While I dislike CGI characters over good old-fashioned makeup, the CGI orc villains were actually pretty decent looking in my opinion (despite being completely dismissed by the majority of fans). Not excusable, but passable.
6) Legolas and Tauriel in Desolation of Smaug didn't take me away from the film too much, but at times gave me that welcome hint of Rings that brought small butterflies into my stomach. They are kick-ass elves, though Legolas WAS a bit angrier in this version than he was in Rings.
7) Ian McKellan should get an Oscar just for maintaining a constant, near-perfect portrayal of Gandalf the Grey throughout six films. He has possibly been the single greatest thing to come out of the books and onto the screen.
8) While the talking trolls and talking spiders may have seemed dumb to many, they were actual scenes from the book, so pick your battles wisely on what you feel SHOULD have been adapted and SHOULD NOT have been adapted.
9) You have to give props to Peter Jackson for at least maintaining a constant color tone and appearance of Middle-earth with the help of Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie.
10) Howard Shore, despite not creating as catchy of themes as he did a decade ago, still has created a musical score that is above and beyond the majority of the laziness that is heard in other movies today.
All in all, I have enjoyed The Hobbit films for my own reasons, and actually look forward to the final chapter, The Battle of the Five Armies, and will probably leave a bit saddened in a nostalgic sort of way. With the expansion of the limited-in-detail material to be adapted upon does leave the Hobbit films with a slight air of "lacking authenticity", they are still quality films with small gripes that will not hinder my future overall enjoyment of them. While i may not cherish them as much as I did the other trilogy of films, they exist as a different sort of film that IS going to draw comparison, but in many cases unjustly so. Despite this, it's going to be (and has been) extremely difficult for many audiences to accept this fact, which is why these films are far under-performing Jackson's prior, more beloved trilogy of adaptation.
While The Hobbit will not be remembered as great, and may never win a single Oscar (The Lord of the Rings trilogy won 17), they should be at least taken into consideration as a pretty damn-close rendition of films that match the look and feel of the others, making for a pretty damn solid set of six films that can be watched straight through without feeling out of step with each other.
In the end, with all the "Extended Versions" once they come available, a marathon viewing would take somewhere in the vicinity of 21 hours to complete. Now THAT would be an unexpected journey.