I didn't care much for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Accusations that Peter Jackson was stretching out a straightforward story to three films and eight hours, purely for financial reasons seemed entirely substantiated from the opening scene. The scene took place at Bilbo's house and seemed to drag on for an age, featuring rude and obnoxious dwarves being constantly unpleasant to the timid, Bilbo while a smug Gandalf found the whole thing highly amusing. It was blockbuster bullying that we were supposed to find engaging and it immediately got the trilogy off to a bad start. And then they started singing.
So it comes with great surprise that I'm happy to report the second instalment is a vast improvement on the first on virtually every level. It's a far more engaging story with fleshed out characters, interesting new ones and a handful of thrilling action scenes that can stand with the very best of 2013. There's less Gandalf, and less of the troupe of dwarves behaving like arses. There's also a dragon. We have to wait a good two hours before Smaug makes his first appearance but it's worth the wait. Benedict Cumberbatch's extraordinary voice lends itself perfectly to the sinister, malevolent Smaug and he gets some quality screen time with his Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman.
The pacing of the film is a big improvement and the narrative wastes no time in getting into gear. The opening scene set in a dank, fetid drinking hole, shows Gandalf convincing Thorin to take a Hobbit with him on his quest to reclaim his homeland from Smaug. Fast forward a year and we're thrown straight into the action as the band of dwarves attempt to evade Beorn, a skin-changer, who either takes the form of a bear or an imposing man. He provides the dwarves with passage to Mirkwood, where they encounter giant spiders and most importantly, a team of Elves. This leads to the film's greatest sequence, a daring and dizzying escape from the Elves' kingdom by the dwarves, with each one in a barrel floating down the river, while Elves and Orcs fight at the river's edge. It's the kind of scene that reminds you that Peter Jackson, when he's not concerned with dwarves burping, can stage an action sequence as well as just about anyone. I actually punched the air with delight at one single take shot during the scene.
The film also benefits from our first visit to new locations. Middle Earth, beautifully realised as it is, has become a bit familiar and with five three hour films in the bag, I seem to have spent more time there than my nan's house. This gives the scenes at Laketown and its snaking waterways a feeling of freshness and novelty and the Lonely Mountain, when we finally get there, is a wonder to behold. Martin Freeman is once again perfect as Bilbo, providing a levity and humour that I always felt the Lord of the Rings films lacked and although he's not as prominent in this film, he gets the chance to shine in his exchanges with Smaug.
It's still not without flaws though. There's no getting away from the fact that at 161 minutes long, it's too long, with too many scenes that are unnecessary and don't advance the plot. Martin Freeman's Bilbo is such a stand-out, that it feels a lost opportunity that he's given much less to do this time and the flipside of that is that there's still a fair amount of dwarf time and they're still a difficult bunch to warm to. Being unfamiliar with the book, I'm hoping Thorin, in particular, starts to exhibit redeeming qualities during the final part. Still, this is at times awe-inspiring, big screen entertainment and has re-energised my interest in the trilogy, to the point I'm looking forward to going There And Back Again next December.