Well, overall a pretty entertaining way to spend an afternoon at the cinema, and a good deal better than An Unexpected Journey, I would say, which I found pretty disappointing about this time last year. This second two and a half hour instalment has some great sequences, some good performances and a stupendous Smaug, but follows a pretty similar formula, namely taking the bare bones of Tolkien’s really quite slight original and bloating them up, steroid-popping bodybuilder style, to twelve times their original size, losing their charm and personality along the way and replacing them with MASSIVE SPECTACLE to rival the MASSIVE SPECTACLE which was PETER JACKSON’S TOWERING ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS. Hand me the script pump, cause we’ve got us some serious inflating to do. Things scarcely alluded to in the text are laid out before us in ponderous and often rather unconvincing detail. Sometimes with bird poo in their hair. MASSIVE BIRD POO. New characters are tossed cavalierly into the mix and familiar ones are backstorified like there’s no front story to worry about. Every trip or minor scare becomes a lengthy CGI-heavy action interlude. And everything is made TWICE DOUBLE AS HUMONGOUS AS IT WAS IN PETER JACKSON’S TOWERING ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS.
I must confess, though, the additions, though probably a good deal more offensive to the purist than last time, were at least a great deal less tedious, sometimes even quite sensible. The introduction of ass-kicking elf-maiden Tauriel and her attendant elf/dwarf love triangle could have been cringingly bad, but actually I didn’t mind it, and if you’re going to go off-piste, then adding maybe a female character or two in the entire world is not a bad thing to do to the Hobbit. Additional time with Thranduil and Bard was well spent. There also seemed to be a bit more sense made of the Arkenstone, Thorin’s hunger for it, and Bilbo’s decision not to give it to him. A suicidal trip by Gandalf to find out something he was 99% sure of already made absolutely no sense and was totally pointless, mind you. The design was predictably brilliant, one would have to say, though Beorn looked a bit weird, didn’t he? And what about those prosthetic dwarf hands? In mid shot the dwarves would all be standing about rather awkwardly looking as if they had hairy pink washing up gloves on.
What I found a lot more peculiar than the additions were the subtractions. You’d think, with so little material to work with and so much time to fill, they’d damn well clutch every straw Tolkien wrote for them. But gone was the black stream in Mirkwood, gone was Gandalf’s trick of introducing the dwarves to Beorn two by two, gone were a lot of the subtleties. In their place we got ACTION. ACTION TO RIVAL THE TOWERING ACTION OF PETER JACKSON’S ACTIVE ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS. It really didn’t rival Lord of the Rings, though. Generally there was way too much CGI for my taste, and the action had lost any sense of shock, impact and danger, often it was pretty hard to really follow what was going on with the plunging camera angles and writhing CGId heroes. The barrel ride became an interminable white water barrel-themed fight with super-graceful hopping elves and roley-poley funny dwarves getting the best of what struck me as not very well CGId Orcish Hordes. Then we had the weighty additions of an interminable fight between super-graceful hopping elves and not very well CGId Orcish Hordes on the rooftops of Laketown which I must have missed last time I read the book, and an even lengthier fight between roley-poley funny dwarves and a brilliantly voiced and CGId dragon, with the forges of Erebor re-imagined as a gigantic theme-park ride which I definitely missed in the book, and which ended inexplicably with Smaug deciding to leave the dwarves in possession of the mountain and flapping off to Laketown. A MASSIVE DRAGON FLYING AT A MASSIVE LAKETOWN TO RIVAL THE MASSIVENESS OF ETC. ETC.
Everything was outsize. Smaug’s hoard has become a veritable mountain under the mountain. I mean that dragon really has got himself A METRIC MOTHERFUCKTON OF GOLD DOWN THERE. Dol Guldur ain’t so much a ruined tower as A SPRAWLING RUINED SORCEROUS ULTRA-CITY full of skulls and spikes and crumbly bridges and cages from Evil Wizards r Us that leaves you wondering why Sauron chose to downsize to Barad Dur. Bard’s Black Arrow, rather than being, you know, an arrow, is THE LAST GIANT RIFLING HARPOON TALLER THAN A MAN which has to be shot not from, you know, a bow, but from THE LAST OF THE GIANT DWARVEN FOUR-ARMED MEGA BALLISTAS ON TOP OF A HUGE TOWER. One scratches one’s head because, quaint though this may sound, bigger really isn’t always better. The best moments were often the small things – Thorin’s profile matched against the great stone profile of his grandfather’s statue as he says he’s nothing like his grandfather, Thranduil getting all tetchy and elven-weird in his tree-root halls, or the nimble details of Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo which might actually have worked even better if the hoard behind him was, I dunno, just the size of a large hill. Everything was made EPIC. Rather than just following Bilbo, and when people leave him, letting them go, we followed Thranduil after we left the elf kingdom, followed Fili and Kili when they were left behind in Laketown, followed Gandalf on his ridiculous one man expedition into Dol Guldur. Loads of weighty strands all going on at the same time? That’s not really the Hobbit, that’s Lord of the Rings.
Look, it’s better than the last film. Look, it’s a fun way to pass an afternoon. Look, it has some wonderful design, and some great visual ideas, and some pretty creditable performances. But it’s not very memorable. It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. A childish tale of fun with the funny dwarves and their naturalistic charming hobbit companion? A weighty and pompous prequel Lord of the Rings doesn’t need? A stirring action adventure with a short leading man? In the end what I loved about Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings was that, in spite of what he cut and what he added, in spite of the small liberties and the amped-up action, he somehow achieved the alchemical balancing act of making the films feel like The Lord of the Rings. What I don’t like about Jackson’s adaptations of the Hobbit is that they just don’t feel like The Hobbit.