I want to preface this review by saying that I know I'm going to sound overly negative about the film when, in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed most of it and especially loved the final act.
In the months leading up to the release of this film, I realized that I wasn't nearly as excited about it as I was each of the films of The Lord of the Rings
trilogy and I've been trying to put my finger on exactly why. I think there are a number reasons, including a slight oversaturation of Middle-Earth (despite the ten-year gap), an unnecessary stretching of the narrative (although the inclusion of Dol Guldur is good), my dismay that the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey
(with special collector's statue and a shit ton of extras) was only available on Blu-Ray (which is a very long rant unto itself), and being ever-so-slightly underwhelmed by An Unexpected Journey
a year ago. While it's unfair to compare this trilogy to the experience and quality of The Lord of the Rings
, at this point of the trilogy a decade ago, I had hungrily enjoyed the extended edition of the previous film and already listened to the new film's score countless of times. Yet this time, I've done neither of these things (nor have I even purchased either item) and I'm rather sad by this notion.
I mention all of this because I want to show what kind of mentality I was in going into this film. Don't get me wrong, I was quite excited, especially by Smaug, but my expectations were considerably lower than before, and yet equally as critical.
The film opens up in the most unexpected way: Peter Jackson reprising his cameo from 12 years ago in the wet and muddy village of Bree (albeit munching on a carrot instead of burping). Why Bree? So we can see the first meeting of Gandalf and Thorin as well as the beginnings of the Quest for Erebor. While it was nice to see this scene, I don't think it was necessary and it is just one of the many changes to the book. I don't mind story changes as much as I did the first time around (and I've since soften my opinion for the most part, with the exception of all things Arwen), but there were a couple of additions in this film that I didn't particularly enjoy.
First and foremost is the continued subplot of Azog's hunt for Thorin. The worst change of the last film was the overblown cliffhanger instead of the rather simple, yet dramatic moment in the novel. There isn't anything quite as bad as that sequence in this film, but the pursuit forces itself into nearly every aspect of the film: driving the Company to Beorn's home (after the orcs miraculously catching up with the Company despite the Eagle's grand rescue), attacking both the Silvan Elves and the Company during the barrel escape, and invading Laketown on the eve of Smaug's return. Additionally, Azog is called to Dol Guldur to help The Necromancer build an army (and act as a foil against Gandalf), while Azog's son, Bolg (who actually is in the novel during the Battle of Five Armies) takes over the role of chasing Thorin. While I understand that these sequences were added to increase the drama and action quota, as well as providing a more fluid lead into the Battle of Five Armies, I often found them unnecessary and overused. I've known for a long time that Peter Jackson, in addition to all of the great things he's done for Middle-Earth, has the terrible tendency of including ineffectual and overly long battle sequences, and he certainly continues to excel on that mark here. Don't get me wrong, the sequences are incredibly choreographed, but there is a point when there's just too much of it and risks swallowing up the story.
My other major grievance in regards to changes to the novel is the forced and unneeded mutual crush between Kili and Tauriel. While I was relieved that there wasn't much in the regards to a Tauriel/Legalos romance (as many had believed), the sudden swooning between these two characters is both excessive and in the way. Kili is poisoned during the Company's escape from the Silvan Elves, which was purely done as a means to further drag out the "relationship" between the two characters by bringing Tauriel (and Legalos) to Laketown to save Kili in an Arwen-esque fashion. I understand that this (as well as holding back several of the dwarves along with Kili in Laketown instead of going up to the Lonely Mountain) serves to expand the roles of the dwarves that Tolkien poorly defined in the novel, but I feel that this could've been done in a much better way than this. It doesn't help any that there doesn't seem to be any reason for the attraction between the two characters beyond the "hot factor" of Aiden Turner and Evangeline Lily and it screams of soapy teen romance. Worse, just a couple of scenes prior to the introduction of their infatuation is a scene that shows Gloin identifying to Legalos his manly-looking wife in his locket, who he thinks is beautiful.
These changes aside, the only other major thing about this film that I didn't like is the pacing of the first act. The film felt like it was trying to rush through certain important sequences, such as Beorn and traveling through Mirkwood, in order to get the introduction of the Silvan Elves and Laketown faster. This is a shame because Mikael Persbrandt is quite wonderful as Beorn but he has very little to work with, and before you know it, he's a footnote in the story. Yes, he has a small role in the novel, yet his character is sidelined for the addition and expansion of Azog, Bolg, Tauriel and Legalos.
Moving to a more positive note, the highlight of the first act, and possibly the entire film prior to Smaug, is the ethereal and eerie depiction of Mirkwood and the attack of the giant spiders. I wish this sequence had been longer and incorporated the Silvan Elves' presence in the forest before they captured the Company, but I really liked how the viewer didn't hear the spiders talking until Bilbo put on the One Ring. I'm pretty sure that moment isn't in the novel, but it's a nice change.
I'm not sure Peter Jackson did this in the previous film, but I noticed that in this film he reincorporated certain themes from The Lord of the Rings
, most notably the waning of Men and the unwillingness to fight the great fight. Where Elrond showed scorn towards Men since the end of the Second Age, this time it's Thorin who shows his disgust in regards to the Men of Laketown. Likewise, Thranduil (and to a lesser degree, Legalos) shows his unwillingness to provide aid to Thorin's cause, much like Theoden's reluctance to help Gondor. I'm certain both of these themes will continue to play out in the next film, just like they did in The Return of the King
Another major highlight is the introduction of Laketown and Bard. Both are given a lot of care and attention, much like Eowyn and Edoras in The Two Towers
, giving good reasons to be interested in them and to root for them in their survival from the impending doom. Luke Evans provides a lot dimension in his performance and characterization of Bard, while Stephen Fry gives Brad Dourif a run for his money in his wonderfully nasty performance as The Master.
All of theses highs and lows become moot the moment Bilbo slowly makes his way into the ruins of Erebor. Everything I could have possibly hoped and dreamed for in the rendering of Smaug the Tremendous were fulfilled. From the incredible CGI artistry to Benedict Cumberbatch's nuanced, motion-captured performance and vocalization, Smaug is given a real-life quality not unlike Gollum. Even the odd appearance of dragon lips moving while speaking is given a strange and uncanny quality that makes the character all the more chilling and unnerving. Cumberbatch gives Smaug catlike movements while stalking his prey, which strengthens the cat-and-mouse chase between Smaug and Bilbo (and later the dwarves). This chase isn't from the novel, but it is easily my favorite change in the film. Instead of just flying off to attack Laketown as punishment for helping the Company, we're treated with an extended sequence throughout Erebor much like the Balrog chase in Moria, but even more so. The only thing I didn't like about the overall sequence was the continuous jumping back to Laketown for the uninteresting trials of Kili's poisoning and orc invasion. A minor quibble, but I can look past it because I could watch the entire Smaug sequence on its own over and over and over again. It ranks up there with the entire Moria sequence as my favorite sequence of the five films thus far.
How is it that, despite the awesomeness of Smaug, Gandalf the Grey, my favorite character of the entire series, is mentioned as a mere side note in my review? Such as it is, Gandlf's role in this film is rather limited once he parts ways from the Company and goes exploring the dusting ruins of Mirkwood. Ian McKellan is always wonderful to watch no matter the role, but as Gandalf the Grey, he takes it to it another level. Despite the smaller role this time around, he is given a kick-ass duel against The Necromancer that rivals his battle with the Balrog.
For months, many have speculated on how the film would end and I was amongst those who thought it would end on the eve of the Battle of Five Armies. I realized while watching the film just how lame of a cliffhanger it would be and that the average moviegoer wouldn't be hooked by such an ending. Fortunately, Peter Jackson had better sense than I did. After seamlessly introducing Bard and Laketown into the overall tapestry of the story and the stakes that they have, ending the film with Smaug swiftly descending onto them has a much stronger emotional resonance. Plus, this means we'll get even more of Smaug and Benedict Cumberbatch, which is always a good thing.
One note on my theater experience. I caught a late afternoon showing so there weren't too many people there (the following showing looked like it was going to be packed based on the long line outside of the screening I saw it at). This was beneficial because, aside from some laughter here and there, I didn't have to deal with much extraneous noise from fans (thankfully, no squealing at the mere sight of Orlando Bloom). However, because I saw this in Brussels, my showing was subtitled in French and Dutch and they didn't provide any subtitles for any of the Elven, Orc, or Black Tongue dialogue, so I found myself a little lost during those scenes. I think there's another theater in town that will provide the English subtitles for those scenes. At least, I hope it does.
In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Martin Freeman continues to be the star of this trilogy, but he is closely rivaled by his Sherlock-
cohort Benedict Cumberbatch (in dual roles), Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, and Luke Pace. Likewise, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Evangeline Lily, and Orlando Bloom all provide solid performances to round off the cast. And, of course, who could possibly forget the all important Stephen Colbert and family cameo? I look forward to watching this film again in theaters, if for no other reason than to see Smaug. Seriously, that sequence is amazing.