I'm not 100% sure about the framing device with Old!Bilbo, either. On one level the sheer fanwank appealed to me because I am just that kind of fan, but on another I'd say that was probably the time I most felt the padding AUJ keeps getting accused of. After that AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME opening scene in Erebor (OH MY GOD THE ARKENSTONE!) I was raring for the beginning of the adventure, so being jerked back to 60 years ago for the extended "yes, we all saw FoTR, get on with it!" sequence had me rather impatient. However, from a purely thematic standpoint I can sort of dig it for the same reasons I dug Galadriel narrating the opening of LoTR instead of Frodo--the stakes were lower, the adventure was more cozy, and we all know Bilbo survived anyway, so why not let him tell his own story? I was a bit confused about him rattling off the opening paragraph of The Hobbit (shouldn't his intended audience know what a hobbit-hole is, and that he lives in one?) but maybe it's some kinda holdover from hobbit oral storytelling tradition. That's my theory, anyway.
Along those lines, I'm not sure if this is just me coming at it from a more jaded position than with the original trilogy, (ha) but I never really got the sheer epic feel from AUJ that I got from seeing LoTR in theaters lo these many years ago. And ultimately, I'm okay with that. While PJ definitely skewed toward a very different audience and mindset with the movie than does The Hobbit itself, I felt it succeeded in making The Hobbit feel like an Adventure instead of a Quest. It has a more light, excited tone than LoTR that's similar to, if not the same as, the tone of the book which I think allows the silly moments and the serious moments to exist side-by-side without the degree of tone whiplash that I was fearing. This was especially true of the musical numbers, which I ended up singing along to on multiple occasions 'cause that's just how I roll.
Now, the bullet-point list of stuff I liked:
- I hadn't seen Martin Freeman to date in anything besides that dull HGTTG movie so I went in not really knowing what to expect, but the guy was a freakin' gem. He's flustered! He's angry! He's wistful! He's having wordless ethical dillemas about who to kill and why! I was charmed by the initial scene with him and Gandalf, but by the time it got to him trying to ask Balin and Dwalin what the fuck they were doing and to get out of his larder as hobbitishly politely as possible I realized I had a big, stupid grin on my face that very, very rarely left me throughout the subsequent proceedings. Dude is amazing.
- Speaking of ethical dillemas, GOLLUM. Just when I thought the CGI couldn't get any better or Andy Serkis couldn't possibly get more creepy yet pitiable, the riddle scene comes along and the audience is rapt. I honestly didn't know how they were gonna do Riddles in the Dark, but IMO it felt so organic and the two actors did such a good job carrying the tension coupled with the sheer ludicrousness of the situation that... well, maybe I could think of an interpretation that would appeal to me more, but I doubt it would be as universally awesome.
- Call me a fangirl with skewed priorities, but Radagast the Brown is my new hero. I can understand why people might have disliked his moments, I personally thought Sylvester McCoy did an awesome job both setting up the whole Necromancer deal and just being one of those weird little bits of Middle Earth that finally gets a chance to shine. I loved his character design, I loved his scene at Dol Guldor, and HOLY CRAP BUNNY SLED. I NEED A BUNNY SLED. That sequence with him leading the wargs off was badass and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
- Goblin Town! The wonderfully grotesque Great Goblin! The entertaining usages of scaffolding in the great escape! The goblin song which I really want the full version of! The dwarf teamwork! The Great Goblin falling on everyone, which I admit cracked me up because I am secretly twelve years old!
- While I thought that Saruman's jerkishness was a bit played up foreshadowing-wise, I still dug the White Council scenes. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm seriously stoked for the movies taking the time to go into what was happening behind the scenes of the Erebor quest, and though it was relatively subtle here (as much as anything in this movie is subtle) I'm really, really looking forward to its subsequent payoff.
- The dwarf character development has worked well, I think. Thorin's I was expecting and despite a few initial notes of the banal side of "elves betrayed me and now I hate all elves ever" I really felt they did a good job fleshing him out as a character. While the other 12 were a bit one-note (and I thought Balin was supposed to be the relatively sympathetic one) I still appreciated the effort to characterize everyone beyond their roles in the books, which are basically THORIN, (the fearless leader) BALIN (the relatively sympathetic one) and BOMBUR (the fat comic relief.) The gratuitous use of prosthetics does make the designated young hot dwarves stick out a bit, but overall it's not too bad. I really dug Bilbo's scene with Bifur in the goblin cave, too.
- And, of course, the opening sequence in all its "used all the gold spray paint in Oceania" glory. Though I was mildly put out by the beardless dwarf women in the escape from Erebor, the rest of the time I was too busy having my mind blown by the usual Weta attention to detail. The steampunky smithing machines! The cliffside mining! The carvings! The gold hoard! THE FRIGGIN' ARKENSTONE! Even in the few moments they were on screen both Erebor and Dale had that look and feel of "this is a real place where real people live" which made LoTR so great and which just made the subsequent Smauging all the more effective.
TL;DR: This movie is one big, slightly uneven, slightly clueless, exciteable, pretty clusterfuck and I love it because of as well as despite its flaws and departure from the books.