There will be spoilers, there will be…
I’m going to start out by saying that broadly speaking I enjoyed it and in terms of studio blockbusters this still feels a cut above the norm, however there’s no escaping the fact that this is by far the most problematic of Jackson’s forays into Middle Earth, making significant changes to the structure of the book and potentially painting themselves into some difficult corners come the third film. Having sat and re-watched An Unexpected Journey over the Christmas break, this feels like it belongs in a different film series altogether, the change in tone is so noticeable.
The films defects can be laid squarely at the foot of the script, which focusses on additions to the narrative at the expense of what is in the book. Watching it it’s noticeable that the strongest sequences are those that are lifted directly from the existing narrative, whilst the weakest (and most problematic) are new. For me only one of the additions actually adds anything meaningful to the narrative – fleshing out the story of The Bard to make him into a figure trying to ensure that Laketown survives in the face of a corrupt government gives importance to a character that otherwise turns up and performs one of the most important actions in the story with no introduction. The changes to the black arrow lose a little of the poetry, but aren’t too jarring.
The problem is that elsewhere the additions appear to have been added in order to increase the number of action set pieces rather than add flesh to the story. This is particularly noticeable at the end when the dwarves spend fifteen minutes trying to defeat Smaug whilst those in the audience who have read the book find themselves wondering why – we know the outcome, it adds nothing to the narrative other than make them look as if they are at least capable of acting in interests other than themselves. It’s more disappointing because it follows a superb realisation of the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug which highlights the quality of Martin Freeman’s performance (something that there are no complaints about, indeed, it remains the highlight of the film). Indeed, this focusses attention on the chief deficit of the film, it feels as if it is no longer about Bilbo (outside of the aforementioned scene, how many lines of dialogue does he get?) and that’s he’s only an incidental character. Given what is left of the narrative then this problem may be even more prevalent in the third film.
As a result of this, despite being shorter than the first film (and nearly half an hour shorter than the extended edition) it feels like more of a slog. The good bits are brilliant (despite my arachnophobia, the parts in Mirkwood are superb, I just wish they went on for longer), but unfortunately the feel of the additions is so at odds with the rest that they are lost amongst the clamour. And whilst trying to link the narrative into a wider Rings sequence makes sense (both narratively and commercially) the problem is the execution.
Elsewhere the quality is of the usual high standard. The production design (other than the ridiculous furnace sequence) remains superb and the effects are less prone to being an excuse to promote the 3D this time (I skipped the 3D HFR presentation completely this time due to my absolute hatred of it last time). The blend between traditional and CGI effects sometimes feels a little more noticeable, but not to the extent that it renders the film unwatchable. Acting wise, Martin Freeman steals the show, reminding everyone when he gets the chance that he’s supposed to be the focus of the film. The dwarves (Thorin and Balin aside) get very little to do, although the reason for Aidan Turner’s presence is becoming more apparent with each film.
In the end it remains solid entertainment, not a top flight blockbuster (it feels very much like the middle film in the way that The Two Towers did not) but certainly a crowd pleaser. The interest now is to see how they will recover from some of the holes they’ve backed themselves into (chiefly the separation of the dwarven party into two groups) whilst retaining the focus of the story for the third film.
A cautious recommendation, one whose enjoyment will depend very much on how you react to the changes to the book.