Four word review: Two elves too many.
The Hobbit is the adventure of 13 dwarfs, a hobbit, and a wizard. A lot happens in the book. Enough to make three action movies, apparently. So why did Peter Jackson think: “What this book needs is more characters.”? I get the idea of tying the story more tightly to the LotR. I get that they might want to add a token female character to a book which is almost exclusively filled with males. But why insert the two elves who basically just add crazy action sequences. Action sequences that continue the absurdity of Legolas’ big scenes in the LotR films to new hieghts of absurdity. (In the Fellowship, Legolas keeps shooting people point-blank with his bow and generally out-fighting everyone; in The Two Towers, he surfs down a staircase on a shield (!); in The Return of the King, he takes out an Oliphaunt, by himself in a scene reminiscent of (but more absurd than) both Luke’s busting an AT-AT on Hoth, and Matthew McConaghey’s axe-wielding leap onto a dragon in Reign of Fire. The hijinks in the Desolation of Smaug are just silly).
I can sort of forgive even this — it is a movie after all — if all the silly added action did not come at the cost of throwing away great stuff that was in the book. For example Beorn was totally wasted. In the book, there is a charming, funny introduction scene, and Beorn’s shapeshifting is all “off screen” and all the more menacing for it. It’s as if Peter Jackson has decided he simply knows better than Tolkien and is making changes for the sake of changing things. Similarly, the movie attempts to make Bard and the Master of Laketown more interesting characters, and mostly succeeds, but in the process the “black arrow” is transformed into a silly ballista bolt, and Smaug’s weak spot is a well-known fact, rather than a critical piece of information discovered by Bilbo. Apart from giving the film a reason to let Bard (rather than Legolas) fire the black arrow in the next film, there is no way this is an improvement. (Honestly, he could have just eliminated Beorn and Bard entirely and let Legolas fill both of those roles in the plot.) I’ve seen a lot of complaining about the female elf and the romance angle with Kili; I don’t mind that addition. It will certainly make Kili’s death more poignant (assuming Jackson has the stomach to kill off everyone who dies in the book…I have my doubts). I don’t mind the extended “Necromancer” scenes and Dol Goldur. I am less enthusiastic about the changes to the characters of Azog & Bolg, and the choice to make orcs in this movie look like self-mutilating Cenobites (or the lead zombie in Return of the Living Dead III) is odd. I think my underlying issue is Jackson adds so many elements and characters unnecessarily — I say they are unnecessary because at the same time he cuts out some really good material.
So, as someone who really loved the book The Hobbit (perhaps more than LotR, even), I am of course very disappointed by aspects of the films so far. Having said that, in the genre of “fantasy films,” of course it is a lot better than most, and it has scenes that rank among the greats. I have no doubt that the Battle of Five Armies could be pretty awesome in Jackson’s hands … if only he can resist having Legolas become a central player in that too.